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Published on February 25, 2020

4 things women need to know about heart disease

Women & CVD

Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Only 32 percent of people in the U.S. are aware of the fact, according to a Cleveland Clinic survey.

“There’s a lot about heart health that women don’t know,” said Jennifer H. Ladner, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with the Cape Cod Hospital Cardiology Hospitalist Service.

Here are four key facts to know:

Symptoms Can be Different

Many women are not aware that heart disease symptoms for women may be different from those experienced by men, said Dr. Ladner.

“The most common symptom in women and men is chest discomfort, but women can have other symptoms that can be sort of non-specific, such as being short of breath or being fatigued.”

Dr. Ladner urges women who are experiencing symptoms that hint at heart disease to see their primary care provider. After considering your cardiovascular risk factors, your doctor can decide whether you should see a cardiologist and undergo further evaluation, she said.

Less Likely to Call 911

Fast treatment after a heart attack could be life-saving, but women wait about 37 minutes longer than men to seek medical attention, according to a 2018 study.

The reason for the discrepancy in time may be that women simply don’t realize that the symptoms they are experiencing are heart-related, Dr. Ladner said.

“They don’t recognize heart disease as being a common disease in women, so it doesn’t come to their mind when they start having symptoms,” she said.

Unique Risk Factors

Pregnancy complications, including gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, can put women at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease when they get older, Dr. Ladner said. Some inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, which are more common in women, also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“Be sure that your primary care physician is aware of things that may have taken place decades earlier in your life because they can have an impact as you age,” she said.

Also, the risk of developing cardiovascular disease is significantly greater post-menopause than pre-menopause.

Awareness is Growing

Dr. Ladner believes the myths of heart disease and women are gradually being dispelled and women are becoming more aware of their risks and possible symptoms. The fact that more women providers are in medicine today means they are educating their female patients about all aspects of heart disease, she added.

“Women providers, whether it be a physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, are aware of these risks with women and are more tuned to a woman’s different symptoms,” she said

Dr. Ladner urges women to be better informed about cardiovascular disease.

“Women, as patients, should understand the cardiovascular risk factors that they think of for men – such as age, hypertension, smoking and diabetes – also apply to women, along with their own unique risk factors as women.”

In observation of February Heart Month, click here to view our full heart health resources including informational videos, a heart health quiz and more.