Real Talk Blog

Heart Health: 5 Things Every Woman Should Know

Key Takeaways:

  • Not only is heart disease a significant cause of mortality in women, but around 45 percent of women over the age of 20 have some form of cardiovascular disease
  • A woman’s heart has some structural differences compared to a man’s. Women tend to have smaller hearts and more narrow blood vessels, which can make the symptoms they experience different.
  • The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain or pressure, which can spread to the jaw, neck, or arm. While women will often experience chest pain or discomfort, they may also have other non-specific symptoms.
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Did you know that heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the United States affecting one in every five women?  Heart disease causes more deaths than all cancers combined. Not only is it a significant cause of mortality in women, but around 45 percent of women over the age of 20 have some form of cardiovascular  disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels i.e. heart attack, stroke, abnormal heart rhythm or heart valves).

In honor of February being Heart Month, let’s talk about what you can do to protect your heart.

A Woman’s Heart Differs from a Man’s

A woman’s heart has some structural differences compared to a man’s. Women tend to have smaller hearts and more narrow blood vessels, which can make the symptoms they experience different. This difference in biology and physiology can make it harder for providers to diagnose and treat heart disease in women, making it important for you to be aware of what to look out for and discuss any concerns you have with your provider.

Differences in Heart Attack Symptoms in Women vs Men

The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain or pressure, which can spread to the jaw, neck, or arm. While women will often experience chest pain or discomfort, they may also have other non-specific symptoms such as heartburn, nausea or vomiting, pain in other areas of the body (i.e. upper back, shoulder, or upper abdomen), shortness of breath, dizziness, or extreme fatigue.  It’s important that if you start to experience symptoms that are unusual for you or that you’ve never experienced before - see your provider to discuss further.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors for developing heart disease. Some of these are preventable such as:

  • High blood pressure: Check your blood pressure at home, at a local pharmacy or with your provider. Aim for a blood pressure < 120/80. A healthy diet low in salt and regular exercise helps.
  • High cholesterol: Get a blood test to check your cholesterol. If your cholesterol is high, work on limiting saturated fats (found in foods such as fried foods, butter, cheese, red meat) and exercise regularly.
  • Diabetes: Get a blood test to check your sugar. If your sugar level is high, see your provider. Focus on limiting refined sugars (found in sodas, sweets, desserts) and regular exercise.
  • Being overweight: Aim for a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5-25 kg/m2 by maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Smoking: Don’t do it! If you are a smoker, set goals to work towards quitting.

 

There are some risk factors, however, that unfortunately, we can’t control.  Factors such as age (being older), ethnicity (ethnic minorities), and family history (history of premature heart disease in first degree relatives) can affect our own risk of developing heart disease. For women, there can be additional risk factors such as pregnancy complications (i.e. high blood pressure in pregnancy, gestational diabetes) and menopause.  Talk to your provider about your individual risk and additional tests you can do to understand your risk profile.

Be Proactive: 5 things every woman should know

Heart disease can be preventable. Here are some steps you can take to protect your heart health:

1. Exercise

  • Aim to do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise per week, such as a brisk walk. You’ll know you’re at the right pace if you’re breathing faster but can still talk and have a conversation4.
  • Muscle training and strengthening is also important – aim to use all major muscle groups at least twice a week4.
  • Every little bit counts — do what you can!

2. Eat a healthy diet

  • Include whole grain carbohydrates (i.e. brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa), fruits and vegetables, lean protein (i.e. chicken, turkey, fish, tofu), legumes, nuts, and low-fat dairy
  • Limit salt, saturated fats, simple sugars
  • Limit alcohol
  • Monitor your portion sizes

3. Sleep well

  • Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night
  • If you have trouble sleeping:
    - Avoid screen use 1 hour before bed
    - Limit caffeine – especially later in the day
    - Maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up routine
    - Try a wind-down routine to relax before bed: consider a warm bath, light yoga or enjoy a cup of herbal tea while reading a book

4. Manage your stress

  • Easier said than done, but focus on limiting and managing stress as best as you can – exercise can help!
  • Try meditation or deep breathing exercises
  • Build a support system you can lean on
  • Seek help if stress is affecting your mental health — your provider can help to connect you to the right resources and treatment (i.e. therapy, medication)

5. Don’t smoke

  • We know that smoking is not good for your overall health, especially your heart health
  • Work with your provider to figure out the best method to help you quit – there are lots! From behavioral therapy to nicotine patches or gums to medications – find the method that will work for you

 

Teal wants to empower you to take your health into your hands. Focus on healthy habits that will protect your heart and overall health.  Partner with your provider to manage your blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar levels. If you have any symptoms or concerns about your heart health, don’t ignore them and discuss them with your provider as soon as possible.

Deepa Thakor, MD
Primary Care Physician

Dr. Thakor, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician with the American Board of Family Medicine.