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Heart Disease in Women: Understanding Symptoms and Risk Factors

All women face the threat of heart disease. But becoming aware of symptoms and risks unique to women, as well as eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising, can help protect.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack for women?

The most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But it's not always severe or even the most prominent symptom, particularly in women. Women are more likely than men to have signs and symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

Many women tend to show up in emergency rooms after much heart damage has already occurred because their symptoms are not those typically associated with a heart attack. If you experience these symptoms or think you're having a heart attack, call for emergency medical help immediately. Don't drive yourself to the emergency room.

What are the heart disease risk factors for women?

Although the traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity — affect women and men, other factors may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women. For example:

  • Metabolic syndrome — a combination of fat around your abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides — has a greater impact on women than on men.
  • Mental stress and depression affect women's hearts more than men's.
  • Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than in men.
  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (small vessel heart disease).
  • Depression is twice as common in women as in men, and it increases the risk of heart disease by two to three times compared with those who aren't depressed.

What can women do to reduce their risk of heart disease?

There are several lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease:

  • Exercise 30 to 60 minutes a day on most days of the week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit or don't start smoking.
  • Eat a diet that's low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.

You'll also need to take prescribed medications appropriately, such as blood pressure medications, blood thinners and aspirin. And you'll need to better manage other conditions that are risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Some women at high risk of heart disease may also benefit from the use of supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

© 1998-2010 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved.