Mother, sister, self? Understand heart disease symptoms, risks

January 14, 2014

Sue Pope, N.P.

By Mayo Clinic Health System

You may know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States — more than all cancers combined. But did you know that more women than men die of heart disease each year?

“That female majority related to heart disease surprises people, but it’s true,” notes Sue Pope, a nurse practitioner in the Cardiac Center at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, who also sees patients in Durand.

Heart disease symptoms in women can differ from symptoms in men. Fortunately, women can take steps to understand their unique symptoms and to begin to reduce their risk of heart disease.


The most common heart attack symptom in women is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But it’s not always severe or even the most prominent symptom, particularly in women. Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as:

  • Neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue  

“Women typically experience much more subtle heart symptoms,” Pope says.

This may be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart — a condition called small vessel heart disease or microvascular disease.

Caring for the caregiver

Many women show up in emergency rooms after much heart damage already has occurred because their symptoms are not those typically associated with a heart attack. If you or someone you know experience these symptoms, call 911. Don’t drive yourself or your loved one to the emergency room.

“We all know that woman — our mom or sister or maybe even ourselves — who is a caretaker of others to the point of ignoring herself,” Pope says. “Encourage your loved ones to put themselves first when it comes to heart health. Give yourself permission to take your own health seriously.”

Risk factors

Although the traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease — such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity — affect women and men, other factors may play a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women. For example:

  • Metabolic syndrome — a combination of fat around your abdomen, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high triglycerides — has a greater impact on women.
  • Mental stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s. Depression makes it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle, so talk to your doctor if you’re having symptoms of depression.
  • Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women.
  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (small vessel heart disease).

“We all need to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly,” Pope says. “But if you have one of these risk factors, work with your health care provider to tackle it. You are worth it.”

Leave a Comment

Comments (0)

Leave a Comment

Enter the Letters and/or Numbers Below

Speaking of Health

Expert guidance and advice.

Online Resource Center

Focusing on specific health conditions to give you the information you need to participate in your care.