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What Women Need to Know About Heart Disease

Women's Heart Health

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More women die of heart disease every year than cancer and all other causes put together. There are some important reasons why, starting with symptoms that can be subtler than the more traditional chest pain men experience.

Red flags

Women’s symptoms often occur for three or four weeks before a heart attack. Watch for:

  • New or dramatic fatigue where even small activities you’re used to doing make you unusually tired.
  • Shortness of breath or sweating, especially when either occurs without exertion and when either is accompanied by a symptom such a chest pain or fatigue that worsens when lying down.
  • Pain in the neck, back or jaw especially when there is no specific muscle or joint that aches or when the discomfort worsens when you are exerting yourself and stops when you stop. Pain can be experienced in either arm. Pain can start in the chest and spread to the back; it can occur suddenly and may wake you up at night. Pain is also sometimes experienced in the lower left side of the jaw.

The silent killer

Coronary artery disease is sometimes hard to diagnose in women, which makes a silent heart attack – when the flow of blood is blocked in the coronary arteries by a build-up of plaque – all the more worrisome.

A silent heart attack is a heart attack that has no symptoms, minimal symptoms or unrecognized symptoms and it’s easy for women to dismiss symptoms as related to something other than the heart.

The American Heart Association says women often miss the non-specific or very subtle symptoms of indigestion, a case of the flu, or a strained muscle in their chest or their upper back.

Are you at risk?

The CDC lists these factors that may increase your chances of getting heart disease:

  • Diabetes
  • Diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Family history of heart disease
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Tobacco use

Ways to lower your risk

The good news is that heart disease is preventable if you learn how to lower your chance of it. You can lower your chance for heart disease by:

  • Eating healthy
  • Staying active
  • Being smoke-free
  • Limiting alcohol

Talk to your doctor

Please reach out to the Clinic to talk to a physician about any conditions that cause you concern. Need help talking to your doctor about women’s heart disease? Print and take this checklist of questions to ask your doctor about women’s heart disease to your next appointment.

Additional resources for women

About the Author

Lauren M. Hana, M.D.

Medical Director
Lauren Hana, M.D.

Dr. Hana serves as the Clinic’s Medical Director, having joined the Clinic in July 2016 as a full-time physician. A graduate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Dr. Hana completed her residency at Northwestern University, Evanston and Glenbrook Hospitals. She is board certified in internal medicine and specializes in the treatment of chronic […]

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