Heart Health in Women

By: Ritter, Brooke, DO – Women’s Care


woman receiving annual exam gtom obgyn vs primary care services

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, however only 13% of women say it is their greatest personal health risk. If not heart disease, then what? Data suggests that on a day-to-day basis, women worry more about getting breast cancer, even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year. Fortunately, heart disease is one of the most preventable causes of death!

Risk factors

Heart disease in men and women is similar, but not identical. Risk factors for women include diabetes, mental stress and depression, smoking, inactivity, drinking excessive alcohol, poor diet, menopause, pregnancy complications, family history of early heart disease, and inflammatory diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the U.S., accounting for 1 in every 5 female deaths. For Hispanic and Asian women, heart disease is second only to cancer as cause of death. About 1 in 16 women aged 20 and older have coronary heart disease.

Having close blood relatives with heart disease can increase your risk. Information about your family health history of heart disease, including what age relatives were diagnosed, is important to know. A genetic disorder called familial hypercholesterolemia, in which people have elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, makes a person more likely to develop heart disease at a younger age and increases the risk of dying from the disease. It is extremely important for those with a strong family history of heart disease to undergo early testing with their doctor, as oftentimes diet and exercise alone are not enough to control cholesterol levels, and treatment with medications such as statins is necessary.


Heart disease is preventable! Here are some measures you should take.

· Know your blood pressure, as uncontrolled elevated blood pressure can lead to heart disease.

· Get tested for diabetes, and if you have it, keep it controlled.

· Quit smoking.

· Check your blood cholesterol and trigylcerides with your doctor.

· Limit your alcohol intake to one drink per day.

· Manage your stress by finding healthy ways to cope with stress levels.

· Be more active; get at least 30 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise.

· Eat healthfully.

· Maintain a healthy body weight with BMI 18.5-24.9 and a waist abdominal circumference <35 inches.

Signs and symptoms

It is extremely important for women to understand and recognize the indicators of heart disease, as they are sometimes different than typical chest pain. Some women will have no symptoms at all. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience angina (dull/heavy/sharp chest pain or discomfort); pain in the neck, jaw, or throat; or pain in the upper abdomen or back. Other symptoms may be nausea, vomiting or fatigue. Sometimes heart disease is silent and not diagnosed until someone has a heart attack (chest pain/dizziness/shortness of breath), arrhythmia (fluttering/palpitations), or heart failure (shortness of breath/fatigue/swelling in the extremities).

Talk to your ob-gyn

If you’re like many women, your ob-gyn is the only doctor you see every year. Heart health should be discussed at your annual visit, and you should feel free to discuss any concerns/questions at that time. Your ob-gyn can counsel and educate you on what you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease with healthy lifestyle choices. High blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity should be routine points of discussion. Certain female conditions that increase risk of heart disease and stroke include preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and hypertension, and your ob-gyn is well positioned to help with these matters.

Now is the time to take control of your heart health

Heart disease doesn’t just happen to older adults; it can happen at any age. It is never too early to begin thinking about your own heart health, especially because conditions leading to heart disease are now happening at younger ages. High

rates of obesity and high blood pressure among people ages 35-64 are putting them at risk for heart disease earlier in life. On average, U.S. adults have hearts that are 7 years older than they should be! Women should get routine cholesterol screening by age 45; however, to be on the safe side, especially if any risk factors or family history is present, cholesterol should be tested yearly starting at age 20.

For women, menopause can play a part in heart disease risk, and your ob-gyn is the expert on all things hormonal. Never hesitate to discuss menopause concerns, as it can lead to much more than just hot flashes and night sweats. Similarly, a history of pregnancy complications can predispose you to heart disease in the future, and although these are not all preventable, focus on adopting heart healthy habits and reducing controllable risk factors can most definitely improve heart health.

Schedule an appointment with your Women’s Care provider to discuss your heart health.