Surprising information about women and heart disease, and what you can do to reduce your risk
What's the biggest misconception about women's heart health?
Despite being viewed for many years as a “man’s disease,” heart disease kills more women than men each year. In fact, one out of every three deaths in women is attributable to heart disease, more than lung and breast cancer combined. We can reduce heart disease risk by focusing on both primary and secondary prevention. Primary prevention is about helping patients modify their risk of ever having heart disease. Secondary prevention is about helping patients lower their risk of having another cardiac event such as a heart attack, congestive heart failure, or a stroke once they have developed heart disease.
Do women experience heart conditions or events differently than men?
Women often experience cardiac pain differently than men. The cardiac event that’s most different is a heart attack. Some women feel no symptoms at all; others note shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, back pain, nausea, or vomiting. In fact, nearly two-thirds of women who die suddenly from cardiac disease have no prior symptoms. Men and women also can experience heart palpitations and cardiac arrhythmias differently, with symptoms ranging from dizziness and fatigue or a fluttering in the chest to simply feeling anxious or unsettled. Women also are more likely than men to develop diastolic heart failure (caused by stiffening of the heart muscle) versus systolic heart failure (inefficient pumping), primarily because their hearts tend to be smaller than men’s. Both types can cause swelling in the legs, shortness of breath – especially when lying flat – and breathlessness with normal activities.
Does a woman's risk of developing heart disease increase after menopause?
Although menopause does not cause heart disease, certain risk factors for cardiovascular disease increase around the time of menopause, including a rise in blood pressure, an increase in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and a decrease in estrogen. These changes, along with the fatigue that may occur with menopause, may cause women to gain weight and exercise less, which increases the risk of heart disease. In addition, unhealthy habits such as smoking and being sedentary start to take a toll when we are in our 50s. The best things people can do to decrease their heart disease risk are to take time for themselves throughout their lives to stay physically active, maintain a healthy weight, keep an eye on their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, never smoke, and eat a heart-healthy diet.
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Susan Matulevicius, M.D., Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, specializes in women’s heart health, noninvasive cardiac imaging, coronary artery disease, and cardiovascular disease prevention. She earned her medical degree and completed internal medicine training at the University of Pennsylvania and completed fellowships in cardiology and advanced cardiac imaging at UT Southwestern.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Matulevicius, call 214-645-8300.