More women in the U.S. die from diseases of the heart and circulatory system than from breast cancer. In fact, heart and circulatory diseases kill over 500,000 women in the U.S. every year. Yet, oftentimes heart attacks that occur in women frequently go unnoticed or unreported. This can be attributed to some women and their doctors not always taking heart disease symptoms seriously, and also to the fact that symptoms of heart disease are often more subtle in women than in men.

It is vital for women and their doctors to understand that there are significant differences in heart disease between genders. These differences can be seen in heart attack warning signs and cardiovascular disease risk factors.

Warning signs of heart attack in women

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain that spreads to the jaw, shoulder, neck or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with light-headedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
  • Deep back pain right between the shoulder blades.
  • Unusual chest, stomach or abdominal pain.
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and dizziness.
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue.
  • Heart palpitations, cold sweat or paleness.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911.

Prevention of heart disease in women

Some women are predisposed to a risk for heart disease because of their family health history. Being aware of your family history and sharing it with your physician is extremely important, so that he or she can monitor your health with appropriate cardiac screening tests. Other, more easily controlled, factors that can help prevent heart disease include:

  • Smoking is a factor in about half of heart attacks in middle aged women. A woman who smokes and uses birth control pills increases her risk of heart disease even more.
  • High blood pressure is a risk factor that can be controlled through diet and, if necessary, medication.
  • Women with diabetes are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, so it is essential that it be controlled with diet, medication or appropriate weight management.
  • Physical inactivity and obesity leads to a 30 to 50 percent higher risk of developing high blood pressure. 41 percent of overweight women are not physically active during leisure time.
  • Genetics may be a risk factor for some people. African American women, as a group, are particularly vulnerable to a higher predisposition for heart disease and stroke.

Surprising facts about heart disease in women

  • Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for women in the U.S., not breast cancer.
  • Each year, twice as many women die of heart disease than of breast, lung and other cancers combined.
  • Every year since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease in the U.S.
  • The probability that a woman suffering a heart attack will die within one year is almost twice that of a man.
  • Women are referred for cardiac testing less frequently than men.