Heart disease is often mistakenly perceived as a disease that affects older people, but heart attacks can and do occur at any age.
Despite increases in awareness over the past decades, only about half (56%) of women recognize that heart disease is their leading killer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The fact is that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing nearly 300,000 women—or about 1 in every 4 female deaths. About 1 in 16 women age 20 and older (6.2%) have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease, said Sheralee Petersen, a certified physician assistant from the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute.
The difference between men and women
While the basic anatomy of a healthy heart is the same in both men and women, a wide range of other factors affects its function over the course of a lifetime. Some contributors to heart health are the same for both genders – for instance, men and women may be affected by a family history of heart disease as well as by lifestyle, including cigarette smoking, being sedentary or being overweight. However other influences, such as hormones and emotions, play different roles in the health of a woman’s heart and circulatory system than a man’s.
Middle-aged women are more likely than middle-aged men to die of a heart attack
Men are more likely to have an “out of the blue” heart attack prior to age 55 than women – but middle-aged women who have a heart attack tend to have had more medical problems, more chest pain and a poorer quality of life in the 30 days before their heart attacks, according to a recent study from the Yale School of Medicine. They are also three times more likely to die as a result of their heart attack than their male counterparts.
Women who smoke are 25% more likely to develop heart disease than men who smoke
Globally, cigarette smoking is one of the leading causes of heart disease for both men and women – but it appears that physiological differences make female smokers more vulnerable to the toxins in cigarette smoke.
Major risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, obesity or being overweight, smoking, physical inactivity, heredity, and age. Factors that could lead to an increased risk include stress and excessive alcohol consumption. For women, that means more than one drink a day.
Your best bet for fighting heart disease is to know which risk factors affect you. The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk for heart disease.
Starting at age 20, women should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. One red flag is a high level of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which clogs arteries, and a low level of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which clears arteries.
Knowing your risk factors empowers you to make simple lifestyle changes to keep your heart healthy:
- Reach and keep a healthy weight. You’ll reduce your blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes risk, hitting three key risk factors at once.
- Trim saturated fat and salt from your diet. When you can, trade butter for heart-healthy canola or olive oil. Swap red meat for seafood, a good source of omega-3 fats that help reduce triglycerides, clotting, and blood pressure.
- Move more. Exercising at a moderate to high intensity for 30-40 minutes on average, 3 to 4 days a week, can lower your blood pressure, strengthen your heart, decrease stress, and result in weight loss.
- Quit smoking. Smoking is the most common risk factor for women and triples your heart attack risk.
- De-stress daily. Finding ways to defuse stress will help slow your breathing and heart rate as you lower your blood pressure.
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