Heart disease might not be unique to women, but according to experts at Baylor College of Medicine, some of the symptoms and risk factors are quite different compared to men.
"Around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States, however, it is the leading cause of death in women," said Dr. Tina Shah, assistant professor of medicine – cardiology at Baylor and also with the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.
"According to data from the CDC, heart disease was the cause of death for nearly 300,000 women, compared to breast cancer which causes about 40,000 deaths per year."
While many risk factors are similar for men and women, for women low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Also, conditions like diabetes and depression have been shown to affect a woman’s heart more so than men, Shah said.
For both men and women risk factors include: age, smoking tobacco, hypertension, high LDL cholesterol, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use.
Symptoms of a heart attack also differ between men and women. Women often experience fatigue and sleep disturbance prior to a heart attack. While some do experience chest pain it is in the form of pressure or squeezing in the center of the chest spreading to the neck, shoulder or jaw. This pain can be experienced with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
"A significant number of women do not experience the typical debilitating chest pain associated with a heart attack," said Shah.
Other symptoms in women include lower chest discomfort, upper abdominal pressure or discomfort that may feel like indigestion and back pain
"If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately," said Shah. "It is important to talk to your doctor to understand the risk factors, how they differ in women compared to men, and then to control these risk factors through preventive measures to reduce the occurrence of cardiovascular disease and death."