Female doctor with the stethoscope holding heart

What women need to know about heart disease

Dr. Sujoy Phookan, cardiologist at IU Health North and Saxony Hospitals

February is American Heart Month, an annual observance that encourages people across the country to focus on their

heart disease
Female doctor with the stethoscope holding heart

cardiovascular health and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle. Historically, there has been a misconception that heart disease primarily affects men. However, the truth is starkly different. Heart disease, including coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death among women globally, surpassing all forms of cancer combined. It is important to know the risk factors and recognize the symptoms of heart disease in women.

Know the symptoms.

Coronary artery disease and heart attacks often present with chest pain in both women and men. However, women also frequently present without chest pain and experience subtler symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, back or jaw pain and fatigue, among others. These atypical symptoms can lead to misdiagnosis or delayed treatment.

heart disease

There are multiple risk factors.

There are several common risk factors that contribute to heart disease in both men and women. These include age, diet, genetics and other coexisting conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Smoking, lack of physical activity, obesity and high-stress levels also heighten the risk substantially.

Conditions unique to women, including pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and preterm delivery, can increase the likelihood of heart disease later in life. Other conditions that predominantly affect women, such as breast cancer and autoimmune diseases, also increase the risk. Additionally, post-menopause, when estrogen levels decline, women’s risk of heart disease rises.

You may need to alter your lifestyle.

Addressing the risk factors of heart disease involves a multifaceted approach. Everyone should strive to get regular aerobic exercise and adopt a heart-healthy diet which limits processed carbohydrates, excess sugar and saturated fats, while including plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and lean protein. Smoking cessation and stress management are also highly encouraged. Everyone should see their primary care physician yearly for routine screenings and discussion of their heart disease risk factors. Women should discuss any of their female-specific risks with their provider. Anyone who has significant concerns about heart disease can ask for a referral to a cardiologist.

Looking to the future.

By fostering awareness, advocating for gender-specific research and treatment strategies, and promoting healthy lifestyle choices, we can strive towards a future where heart disease no longer claims the lives of our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends prematurely. To learn more about heart disease and treatment options, visit iuhealth.org/heart.

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