The Heart of the Matter–Women and Heart Disease

iStock_000019011651MediumIn a world flooded with information on breast cancer, most women often don’t consider their risk factors for heart disease.  Shockingly, one in three women die from heart disease every year, which far outweighs the number of women that die from cancer. This article will discuss heart disease statistics, how you can recognize dangerous heart attack symptoms, determine your risk factors and offer some prevention strategies.

More Stats…

  • Women 45-64 years old have a 1 in 9 chance of having heart disease.
  • After age 65, 1 in 3 women will develop the disease.
  • More women than men die from heart disease every year.

The most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease. The coronary arteries are the blood vessels that directly supply the heart muscle itself with blood and oxygen. When plaque or a blood clot creates a blockage in these arteries it deprives that area of oxygen, which can result in death of that muscle tissue. Once the tissue dies it is not able to conduct electricity and help pump the heart muscle. This can result in poor blood flow throughout the body and cause further damage to the heart tissue.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Experts believe that one reason more women than men have fatal heart events is because women present with different and more atypical heart attack symptoms than men. Women may be less aware that these symptoms indicate a heart attack or wait longer to call 911 or go to the emergency room.

Below are some of the signs and symptoms that may indicate a heart attack:

  • Neck, shoulder, upper back, jaw, arm or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating or paleness
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Heart flutters
  • Unexplained anxiety, fatigue or weakness – especially with exertion
  • Chest pain

What are my risks?

What lifestyle factors,  family inheritances, body shapes at put you at risk for heart disease.  Here is short list.  Be sure to talk with your doctor about your risk.

  • Smoking – smokers are four times more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from heart disease than nonsmokers.
  • Family history of heart disease  – a first degree relative was diagnosed with heart problems before age 65 in female relatives or before age 55 in male relatives
  • Obesity  (about 30 pounds overweight)
  • Lack of exercise/ Inactivity– get your 30 minutes each day of movement.  Go outside, breather fresh air and walk.  Or do movement inside, but move that body!
  • High blood pressure– blood pressure greater than 140/90 is elevated.  One study showed that women with high blood pressure at age 50 developed heart disease seven years earlier and die on average five years earlier than those with normal blood pressure.  The good news is that another study showed that controlling blood pressure can help prevent one-third of heat disease problems in women.
  • Elevated cholesterol– It is very important to have the right balance of good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol circulating in your blood. Elevated LDL is associated with plaque formation in along the arteries which can lead to heart attacks and strokes.  When LDL is well balanced with healthy levels of HDL, this risk is lowered.  IF you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about ways to increase your HDL and  lower your LDL.
  • Diabetes / Metabolic syndrome these conditions which are known to affect blood sugar regulation in the body also predispose individuals to an increased risk for early death from heart disease, heart attack and stroke.  The blood sugar imbalance creates inflammation throughout the body, including the cardiovascular system.
  • Unhealthy diet a recent study showed that women (average age of 61) who eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains along with heart healthy fats were 31% less likely to die within six years, and less likely to die of heart disease. For more information about a heart healthy diet, read more below or Top Five Heart Healthy Foods.

Tips for Healthier Heart

Activity – at least 30 min of moderate exercise five days per week. You can even do three 10-minute intervals.

Quit Smoking – many natural treatments exist to aid in smoking cessation. Talk to your ND or acupuncturist about your options.

Improve blood pressure and cholesterol – diet changes and herbal supplements can help bring both of these down naturally.

Reduce blood sugar – decreasing refined carbohydrates and eating more protein can improve glucose levels.  Also, choosing foods low on the glycemic index. See the resource below.

Eat a heart healthy diet – these changes often improve obesity, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

  • Start by trying to prepare most meals at home and avoid packaged foods
  • Increase fresh, organic fruits and vegetables at every meal
  • Use healthy oils for cooking- olive oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, sesame oil
  • Exchange meat products for fish high in omega-3 fatty acids 2–3 times per week. Such as, salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, and sardines.
  • Avoid high sugar foods–desserts, muffins, soft drinks and candy. If in doubt check the label. See the articles below.

Helpful Websites

♥ Glycemic Index –

♥ Sugar Shockers:  Foods Surprisingly High in Sugar –

♥ American Heart Association –

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  1. Douglas, P; Kaski, JC; Pelikka, P; Saperia, G. Clinical features and diagnosis of coronary heart disease in women. Accessed 1/4/13 from UpToDate.
  2. Heart Disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors. Accessed 1/4/13 from
  3. Are you having a heart attack? Accessed 1/4/13 from

By Amy LaRue 4th year medical student edited by Dr Elise Schroeder