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Women and heart disease – what are the risks and symptoms?

GEHA | May 20, 2022

Take action to know how to improve your heart health.

Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death for women throughout the world. More women die from heart disease than from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer's disease and accidents combined. More women than men die from stroke every year. 

Heart disease seems to happen slightly differently in women than in men. For example, plaque may build up differently in a woman's arteries so that a doctor cannot see a blockage during a cardiac catheterization test. Researchers are trying to understand these differences to help find the best ways to prevent, diagnose and treat women who have heart disease. 

What are the risks for heart disease?   

Most of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke are the same for women and men. These include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, lack of exercise and family history. 

Women may have other factors that increase risk such as menopause, hormone therapy (HT), birth control usage, pregnancy-related complications, immune diseases and migraine headaches.

Migraine headaches, especially migraines with aura, have been linked with stroke in women younger than 55. Migraine with aura is a classic migraine that includes a recurring headache after sensory disturbances like flashes of light, dizziness, ringing in the ears and vision changes. Talk to your doctor regarding these possible risks and your over-all health.

To lower your chances of getting heart disease, it’s important to: 

  • Get your annual physical. Knowing your risk can help you and your doctor talk about whether you need to lower your risk. Together, you can decide what treatment is best for you. 
  • Know your blood pressure. Having uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to heart disease. Hypertension has no symptoms, so it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.  
  • Talk to your doctor or health care team about whether you should be tested for diabetes. Having uncontrolled diabetes raises your risk of heart disease.  
  • Quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, learn ways to quit. 
  • Discuss checking your blood cholesterol and triglycerides with your doctor. 
  • If you are prescribed a statin medication, it is important to take it as directed and speak with your doctor before stopping.
  • Make healthy food choices. Being overweight or obese raises your risk of heart disease. 
  • Limit alcohol consumption. 
  • Manage stress levels by finding healthy ways to cope and outlets for relief. 

It is also important to recognize the signs of heart disease and stroke. Heart disease develops when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, preventing the heart from getting the blood it needs to work. Over time, this can weaken or damage the heart. If the blood flow is blocked, it can cause a heart attack. Remember, even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease. 

Plaque can also build up in the neck arteries, limiting blood flow to the brain. A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked or an artery in the brain leaks or burst. Knowing the symptoms of a stroke can save lives. These include:

  • sudden numbness, tingling, weakness or loss of movement in your face, arm or leg, especially on only one side of your body, 
  • sudden vision changes, 
  • sudden trouble speaking, 
  • sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements, 
  • sudden problems with walking or balance, 
  • a sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches. 

Do not wait if you think you are having a heart attack or stroke. Getting help fast can save your life.  Use the letters in F.A.S.T to spot a stroke. (Face drooping, arm weakness, slurred speech and time to call 911 if any symptoms present).

“Women and heart disease.” Centers for Disease Control

The information contained herein is for informational and educational purposes only. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice and if you have questions regarding a medical condition, regimen, or treatment you should always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider. Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice from a qualified medical professional because of information you have read herein.