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Heart Health: What Women Need to Know

Understanding of the unique symptoms women experience can go a long way toward reducing your risk of heart disease.

Many people don't know that more women die of heart disease each year than men. All women face the threat of heart disease – not just older women – and having a thorough understanding of the unique symptoms women experience can go a long way toward reducing your risk of heart disease.

Heart Attacks in Women

For women, the most common symptom of a heart attack is some form of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. This discomfort isn't always severe or even the most noticeable of a woman's heart attack symptoms, however. Many women are likely to have heart attack symptoms without chest pain like neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back and abdominal pain, shortness of breath, right arm pain, nausea, vomiting, sweating, dizziness and even an unusual level of fatigue.

Women's symptoms may also occur more often when they are resting or even asleep, and may be triggered by mental stress.

Finally, women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart. This is known as small vessel heart disease or microvascular disease.

It is important to note that women tend to show up in the emergency room after the heart damage has already occurred. This is largely due to symptoms that do not seem to be those typically associated with heart attacks.

Risk Factors for Women

Different factors may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women than they do in men. Some of those factors are listed below:

  • Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease more in women than it does in men.
  • Metabolic syndrome, a combination of fat around the abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and triglycerides, tends to have a bigger impact on the health of women than men.
  • Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men.
  • Lack of physical activity is a major risk factor and as a group, women tend to be less active than men.
  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause are another significant risk factor for developing microvascular disease.

How to Reduce Your Risk

There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease and attack, but some of the most important ones are:

  • Quit smoking (or don't start at all!)
  • Exercise 30-60 minutes a day, most days of the week. If you need to lose weight, consider increasing that amount to 60-90 minutes a day, most days of the week.
  • Take the stairs, walk or ride your bicycle to errands, and do sit-ups and push-ups while watching TV to stay active.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. A normal body mass index (BMI) will vary depending on the person, but under 25 is generally considered healthy. A waist measurement greater than 35 inches is generally considered overweight.
  • Eat a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.
  • Women over 65 may benefit from taking a daily dose of 81 milligrams of aspirin if blood pressure is controlled, but talk with your doctor before beginning any drug protocol.
  • If you are a woman of any age already suffering from heart disease or diabetes, it may benefit you to taken between 75-325 milligrams of aspirin daily, but again, make sure to consult with your doctor first.

The Central Maine Heart and Vascular Health Institute in Lewiston offers expert cardiac and vascular diagnostic and treatment services close to home. We make it our mission to provide comprehensive care, from prevention and screening to treatment and rehabilitation, that is high-quality, efficient, evidence-based, and patient and family-focused. Learn how you can look out for your heart health at