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The facts are both alarming and sobering: According to the American Heart Association, heart disease and stroke cause 1 in 3 deaths among women each year — more than all cancers combined.
The more a woman knows about heart disease, the better chance she has of preventing it. Awareness is key, says Dr. Mary Bechis, a cardiologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
“I’ve been at Sharp Rees-Stealy for a little more than two years and in that time, there has been an increasing awareness of heart conditions in women and the differences in symptoms, as well as the type of cardiovascular disease more common in women, including stroke,” she says.
Dr. Bechis notes there are other serious heart conditions that are more common in women, including:
Peripartum cardiomyopathy — weakened heart muscle that can occur around the time of childbirth
Takotsubo stress cardiomyopathy — also known as broken heart syndrome, this is seen more frequently in women
Not just a men’s disease
While the rate of heart disease and stroke among women is better understood today than in the past, many people still associate heart disease and heart attacks with men.
“Men more often display classic heart attack symptoms such as crushing chest pain that radiates to the arm and neck, accompanied by sweatiness and shortness of breath,” says Dr. Bechis. “Men also tend to experience coronary artery disease and heart attacks at a younger age.
However, women catch up in heart disease risk by the time they reach menopause, or sooner, if they have other risk factors such as diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking or family history. Women are also at higher risk for stroke.
Heart attack symptoms can differ by gender
The symptoms or signs of heart attack are often different in women, says Dr. Bechis. “Both genders, but especially women, can have subtle symptoms or even silent heart attacks,” she says.
In addition to the typical symptoms described above, women may feel:
Indigestion or abdominal discomfort instead of chest symptoms
Fatigued or weak and unable to do what they previously had no problem doing
Unfortunately, some women ignore symptoms because of the misconception that heart disease is less common in women, and they believe their symptoms are not serious, says Dr. Bechis. “My best advice is if something doesn’t feel right, please speak with your doctor and get evaluated,” she says.
Family history also plays a major role. “Some families have multiple generations of family members who had heart attacks at a young age, which may be related to an underlying condition such as high cholesterol or an undefined heritable factor that is not yet understood,” says Dr. Bechis. “Others have genetic forms of heart muscle disease or abnormal heart rhythms, for which patients should get screened. It is important to know your family history and share that information with your doctors.”
Decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke
To decrease one’s risk of heart disease, regardless of gender, Dr. Bechis offers some advice.
“Diet and exercise greatly affect heart disease risk. Guidelines encourage 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (walking, running, biking, elliptical) at least five days a week. A low-fat, low-sodium, plant-based diet with appropriate portion control, is also recommended,” she says.
“In addition, routine visits with your primary care doctor to screen for and manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, can significantly reduce long-term risk of heart disease and heart attacks,” says Dr. Bechis.
Learn more about comprehensive heart and vascular care at Sharp.
Sharp partners with the American Heart Association to raise awareness about women’s heart health.