Women and Heart Disease: Equal but Not the Same

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Women and Heart Disease:  Equal but Not the Same—Similar Risks, Subtler Symptoms, in a Heartbeat
Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN, ACSM
Your Personal Trainer:

It is the most important muscle in your body–your heart, silently working around the clock, beat-by-beat, tick-by-tock, until it stops.

“Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, for women as well as men.”1  However, much of the research related to it has been focused on men until recently.  If you’ve been seeing red lately, it’s because that is changing.  February is Heart Month and the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” campaign is in full swing, helping to spread awareness that women have heart disease, too.  While women have attained equality with men in many areas, including the risks for heart disease, women do not always exhibit the same symptoms.

Your heart is at the center of your cardiovascular system.  It is the pump that delivers blood to your entire body, from your brain to the tips of your fingers, to the ends of your toes.  It also delivers blood to itself via the coronary arteries which branch off the aorta and supply all parts of the heart muscle with oxygen-rich blood.  That blood flow can be restricted by the thickening, hardening and narrowing of the insides of the arteries, a process called atherosclerosis.  This condition leads to  coronary artery disease, CAD.  It develops slowly over time and can be present for years before the first symptoms are manifest.
These symptoms can include chest pain, pain in the jaw, and in one or both arms.  These are often described as the “classic” signs of a heart attack, a signal that the heart is not getting enough oxygen.  Women’s heart disease symptoms are often different than men’s. While some have the classic symptoms, many do not.  Women are often faced with the subtler symptoms of fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion, anxiety and a sense that something is wrong.   Until recently, heart disease has been thought of primarily as a man’s disease.  Awareness is growing thanks to the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” program.

The risk factors for developing CAD are well-known and are the same for women and men.  They include smoking, lack of exercise, high blood pressure, stress, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and saturated fat in the diet, and a family history of heart disease.  Know your risks whether you are a woman or a man.  Look out for yourselves. Be your own advocate.  Take charge, listen to your body, and be good to your heart.  While you can’t change all of your risk factors for heart disease such as your age and your family history, you can begin to work on controlling others.  If you smoke, work towards stopping.  If you don’t exercise, work towards starting.  Aim for a goal of exercising 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.  If you have diabetes, be as concerned about your heart as you are about your blood sugar.  Women with diabetes are at a much higher risk for developing CAD and having a heart attack or stroke than women without diabetes.

As a cardiac rehabilitation nurse, I work with women who are recovering from heart attacks, heart surgery, and other forms of heart disease.  I’d like to conclude with this quote from The National Institute of Nursing Research:  “Understanding the complexity of a woman’s symptoms of heart and cardio-vascular disease could greatly assist nurses and other health care professionals in designing interventions to promote cardiac health awareness and to decrease treatment delay—key components in survival and recovery.”2

“Go Red for Women” . . . Women, be aware.  Be good to your hearts.

1,2.   National Institute of Nursing Research,  “Subtle and Dangerous:  Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women.”
National Women’s Health Resource Center, “Women and Cardiovascular Disease.”  August, 2005

Yours in fitness,

Olivia C. Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Trainer, ACSM