Heart Health

Heart Disease Is the Biggest Threat to Women’s Health. Many Don’t Even Know

Originally published November 6, 2019

Last updated April 29, 2024

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Less than half of American women know the biggest threat to their health is heart disease. Learn more about it — and how to reduce your risk.

This fact may surprise you: Heart disease, which includes cardiac conditions such as coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart attack, is the leading cause of death among women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Unfortunately, this sobering statistic hasn’t made much headway in public conversation,” says Antreas Hindoyan, MD, a cardiologist at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

A recent survey by the Women’s Heart Alliance backs this up. The survey found that 45% of women between the ages of 25 and 60 didn’t know that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among women. On top of that, less than a third of women surveyed had asked their doctors about heart disease.

Why don’t women know their risk?

While more women are becoming aware of their risk, information and education are just part of the issue. Women also have a different risk profile than men — and in the past, the standards for cardiovascular health were typically set with men’s health in mind.

What do you picture when you think of a heart attack? It may be the common image of a man clutching his left shoulder in pain. And that’s right on target, since the most frequent symptom is an intense pressure in the chest that may radiate outward to the jaw or down the left arm.

However, women are more prone to experiencing atypical heart attack symptoms, Dr. Hindoyan explains. They can also have a much wider and, in some cases, less intense range of symptoms when experiencing a heart attack.

The most common signs of heart attack in women include:

  • Squeezing or tightness in the center of the chest
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Nausea, cold sweats or lightheadedness

“There are plenty of women who experience nontraditional symptoms during a heart attack,” Dr. Hindoyan says. “I’ve seen patients describe symptoms of acid reflux that did not improve with antacids, severe shortness of breath, tightness in the mid-back and squeezing pain in the throat, when they were experiencing a heart attack.”

According to Dr. Hindoyan, women tend to fair worse than men after experiencing a heart attack. He also notes that heart attacks can happen because of physiological situations unique to women, such as pregnancy.

Another type of heart disease that appears differently in women is stable obstructive CAD, which occurs when the arteries that provide blood to the heart muscle become hard and narrow.

“In addition to heart attacks, stable obstructive CAD tends to present later in life in women than in men,” Dr. Hindoyan says.

How can I reduce my risk?

The most important thing to help mitigate women’s risk of cardiovascular disease is to recognize that it is a serious health issue, and it should not be ignored or dismissed, Dr. Hindoyan advises.

Even just knowing about the risk of heart disease among women and the range of potential symptoms can motivate you to make healthful changes.

“Adhering to a healthy diet with plenty of cardiovascular exercise are things we can start to do today that can have an immediate impact with positive consequences,” Dr. Hindoyan suggests.

Being informed and proactive today can make all the difference later.

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Deanna Pai
Deanna Pai is a freelance writer and editor.