Heart disease: Preventing the No. 1 killer of women

Posted by Jonny Salim, M.D.
February 11, 2014

Jonny Salim MDDid you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in American women? How about that 60,000 more women than men die each year from coronary artery disease? Chances are many women aren’t privy to these shocking statistics, which doesn’t bode well for overall awareness.

Increasing awareness of heart issues in women is the first step toward reducing the death rate from this largely preventable killer. Understanding risks, prevention and symptoms are all integral to heightened knowledge and a lower risk of heart disease.


It’s well-documented that high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity are major risk factors for heart disease. But there are some risks that affect women more than men:

  • Diabetes
  • Premature menopause (before age 45)
  • Smoking
  • Metabolic syndrome – the combination of abdominal fat and high blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides (a fat found in blood)
  • Depression

No matter your age, be sure to speak with your health care provider if you think you may be at risk for heart disease.

Heart attack warning signs

Another common message is that crushing chest pain is an indicator of a possible heart attack. While this is true, heart attack signs in women can be very different.

Aside from chest discomfort, women should take immediate action if they notice any of these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck, upper back, shoulder or stomach area
  • Severe lightheadedness or loss of consciousness
  • Nausea, vomiting and extreme cold sweats
  • Excessive fatigue

Since women are more likely to experience a heart attack resulting from microvascular coronary disease – blockage of the smaller arteries that branch off from larger coronary arteries – symptoms in women tend to be more subtle. Don’t wait to seek help if you are concerned that you may be having a heart attack. The longer you wait, the more damage inflicted to your heart.

Avoiding heart disease

Heart disease and heart attacks are not to be taken lightly. The encouraging reality is that a healthy heart is within reach – it just takes a little effort. Here are a few things you can do to reduce your risk for heart complications:

  • Get moving. An easily-achievable 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day reduces your risk of heart disease. Can’t do 30 minutes? That’s OK, because any amount of physical activity is better than none. Try to exercise at least 3 times per week.
  • Limit cholesterol, fat and sodium. Avoid foods high in cholesterol, saturated fat and salt. Stack your plate with fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead, and read food labels carefully. If possible, avoid canned foods, which generally have higher sodium content. Another option is to look for low-sodium canned foods. Fresh or frozen vegetables or fruits are better choice.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking causes all sorts of medical problems, including heart and lung disease.
  • Adhere to medication regimens. If you’re prescribed medications, be sure to take them. Your doctor gave them to you for a reason.
  • Manage conditions. Be diligent about managing any health conditions you currently have. If neglected or mishandled, underlying medical issues can complicate other areas of your health.
  • Consume alcohol in moderation. Women should stick to no more than one alcoholic drink per day. If you don’t drink alcohol in the first place, continuing abstinence is a good choice. Excessive alcohol consumption contributes to heart and liver disease.

Seize the moment and commit yourself to becoming a heart healthy woman today. Awareness and action go a long way in improving your health and longevity.

Women can assess their heart disease risk at mayoclinichealthsystem.org/womens-health/assessment.

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Comments (2)

I have survived a triple bypass and now make healthier choices. The most difficult part for me is being unable to eat out as there are not a lot of choices on the menus for healthy heart foods. I do ask if out for options but sodium makes food taste better so quite often the entrees are loaded with salt. Maybe in the future we will have resturants that will adhere to good quality food flavored with herbs not salt.

Geri Schlueter - 03/06/2014

The above comments are mostly true, but the recommendations do miss the single most important risk factor for metabolic syndrome and all its consequences: sugar. The metabolic effects of sugar, particularly the fructose component, is really what the developed world needs to start avoiding. We are animals genetically designed to be hunter-gatherers who drink water. How should we avoid heart disease? Follow what we're designed to do! Walk to the grocery and eat fruit, vegetables, nuts and the odd steak or fish! cheers

Philippe Rola - 02/11/2014

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