The mission of the MedStar Women’s Heart Health Program is to increase awareness and prevent heart disease development and progression in women.
Symptoms and Risk Factors Unique to Women
Many symptoms of heart conditions are more subtle in women. Likewise, some risk factors affect women more than men. We encourage you to listen to your heart.
Know Your Symptoms
Here are the ABCs of women’s heart disease warning signs:
Angina (Chest Pain): Angina may feel like traditional pain, but it may also feel like a tightness or pressure in the chest or throat that radiates down the jaw or left shoulder or arm.
Breathlessness: Having shortness of breath or waking up breathless at night.
Chronic Fatigue: Overwhelming or out-of-character fatigue may be a symptom of heart disease. Severe fatigue that lasts several days can also be a heart attack symptom.
Dizziness: Can indicate heart valve disease or arrhythmia (an irregular heart rhythm).
Edema or Swelling: Particularly in the lower legs and ankles.
Fluttering or Rapid Heartbeat: May cause pain or difficulty breathing.
Gastric Upset: Nausea or vomiting unrelated to diet.
Heartburn: Some women describe heart-related pain this way.
These symptoms do not necessarily mean that you have heart disease. But you should listen to your heart and your body. Talk with your doctor about these symptoms, what triggers them, and how long they last.
If you do have sudden chest, shoulder, or arm pain, tightness in your chest, or you have difficulty breathing, call 911 immediately. Do not delay. Getting treatment quickly could help limit damage to the heart muscle — can it could save your life.
Risk Factors You Cannot Control
Age: As women age, the risk of heart disease increases because of lower estrogen levels and the chances of developing additional health issues that can affect the heart.
Family History: You are at greater risk if an immediate family member had heart disease at an early age – 55 for a male relative or younger than 65 for a female relative.
Race: African-American and Hispanic women have a higher risk of heart disease than Caucasian women.
Gender:Women have a lower risk than men of developing heart disease before menopause, but after menopause, the risk is about equal.
Risk Factors You Can Help Manage
Smoking:Smokers are two to four times more likely to have heart disease than non-smokers. When you stop smoking, your body begins to heal, with almost immediate decreases in blood pressure and heart rate.
High Blood Pressure:Among women of childbearing age, 20 percent have high blood pressure even though many do not realize it. The rate increases to 40 percent between ages 45 and 64, and 60 percent for those age 65 and over. High blood pressure puts added strain on the heart.
High Cholesterol: About one-third of American women have cholesterol levels high enough to pose a serious heart disease risk.
Weight:Excess weight can also put added strain on your heart, raising your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose (sugar) levels. Another way to assess weight-related risk is to measure your waistline. For women, a waist measurement of 35” or more indicates an increased risk of heart disease.
Inactivity: Inactivity can weaken the heart, and it also makes it easier to gain weight, increasing your chances of developing other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Other Risk Factors to Consider
Diabetes:Women with diabetes are at greater risk of heart disease than men with diabetes. Over time, high blood sugar (glucose) levels can damage the body’s blood vessels and increase the chances that fatty deposits will build up in the arteries.
Chemotherapy and Radiation Treatment: Radiation therapy as well as some drugs used to treat cancer, particularly breast cancer, can increase your risk of heart disease. If you have had cancer diagnosis, talk with your doctor about seeing a cardio-oncologies, a specialist in cancer treatment and its effects on the heart.
Pregnancy Complications: Women who develop high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy are at higher risk for developing heart disease later in life. It is particularly important for these women to see their doctor regularly for checkups each year and to pay attention to important lifestyle issues, such as exercise and healthy eating.
Stress and Depression:Both chronic and the sudden onset of stress seem to affect women’s hearts more than men’s hearts.
Sleep Apnea:A serious condition in which breathing suddenly stops during the night, sleep apnea may be under diagnosed in women. During an apnea episode, the brain triggers the body to awaken to resume breathing. This frequent, rapid awakening (which you may not even be aware of) can increase blood pressure and put added strain on your heart.
Autoimmune Disease: Some of these diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis—both more common in women than men—tend to have an effect on the heart, possibly due to the inflammation they cause.
Real Women, Real Experiences
In this video, meet Mary Lou, Julia, Shannon, and Anna, whose life experiences affected their heart health, but who have benefited from our ever-expanding knowledge about women and heart disease.
Nationally Recognized Cardiac Specialists
Our cardiovascular team includes specialists in women’s health. Our experts are sharing new information about risk factors unique to women and collaborating with the world-renowned Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic to bring you the best possible care. To request a referral for consultation with one of these cardiologists, please call 888-289-2631.
- Tolulope Agunbiade, MD
- Ebony Alston, MD
- Ana Barac, MD
- Rachel Barish, NP
- Leah Bergman, MD
- Harjit Chahal, MD
- Estelle Jean, MD
- Kerunne Ketlogetswe, MD
- Bryan LeBude, MD
- Susan O’Donoghue, MD
- Oluseyi Princewill, MD
- Maria Rodrigo, MD
- M. Barbara Srichai-Parsia, MD
- Kelley Sullivan, MD
- Carolina Valdiviezo, MD