Women’s Heart Health: Conditions and Treatments

Women are no strangers to having their pain minimized by laypeople and medical professionals alike. Unfortunately, quick assumptions of “general pain” by male doctors can eventually result in catastrophic outcomes for women’s heart health. As explained by Dr. Tia Powell, a bioethicist and a professor of clinical epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, “health care providers may have implicit biases that affect the way women are heard, understood and treated.” In an effort to ensure proper, thorough, and timely care for female patients, it is essential to create an increased awareness of the issues surrounding women’s heart health. If women are properly educated on the ways in which heart problems can manifest differently within their bodies, female cardiac patients will be better equipped to spot the signs and symptoms of potential heart problems.

Although often associated with unhealthy, older men, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, “90% [of American women] have one or more risk factors for heart disease at some point in their lives”. And almost more frightening, women are encountering heart attacks at progressively younger ages. In a November 2018 study conducted by Circulation, researchers “analyzed data from hospital surveillance of heart attacks in people between the ages of 35 and 74 in four communities in Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, and North Carolina.” Of the 28,000 female heart attacks examined, all taking place between the years of 1995 and 2014, “a whopping 30 percent (8,737 patients) were under the age of 54.” However, this situation can make a turnaround through heightened awareness, better education, and improved treatment methods because “80% of cardiovascular diseases are [actually] preventable”.

Heart Attacks in Female Patients

A myocardial infarction, which is commonly referred to as a heart attack, “occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked.” Such a blockage, typically comprised of a buildup of fat, cholesterol, etc. and forming plaque in the arteries, can result in clots that have the potential to “damage or destroy part of the heart muscle.” According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common risk factors for heart attacks are age (for women, those over 55), tobacco use (including second-hand smoke), high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels or cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stress, illicit drug use, lack of physical activity, an autoimmune condition, a family history of heart attack, a history of preeclampsia, etc.

Among both men and women, “the most common symptom of a heart attack… is chest pain.” So, women may very well experience “the ‘classic’ heart attack symptoms of chest pressure, chest discomfort or shortness of breath, just as men do.” However, women may potentially encounter less obvious warning signs. These symptoms can include nausea or vomiting; jaw, neck, or upper back pain; unusual sweating; pain or pressure in the lower chest or abdomen; shortness of breath; fainting; indigestion; or even extreme fatigue. And although these signs and symptoms vary in there outward severity, their “consequences can be deadly, especially if the victim doesn’t get help right away.”

Warning signs of heart attack, but not commonly associated with heart attack, are often chalked up by female patients as “less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.” Although “a heart attack strikes someone about every 43 seconds,” women commonly push their symptoms aside out of fear, “and because they put their families first.” In conjunction with this, according to the CDC, “almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease report no previous symptoms.” And as a result of lacking awareness, “there are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”

Lowering Women’s Risk of Heart Disease

Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer offers many tips for preventing or lowering a woman’s chance of facing heart disease — in its many forms.

  • Women are advised to visit their healthcare provider — and regularly — to better learn about their personal risk of heart disease.
  • Women are also urged to stop smoking. By quitting smoking, a woman’s risk of coronary heart disease decreases up to 50% within one year.
  • Additionally, women are encouraged to take up a consistent exercise regime. Simply walking a mere thirty minutes per day has the power to lower a female patient’s “risk for heart attack and stroke.”
  • If needed, women may need to transform their eating habits. Through “smart substitutions, healthy snacking ideas, and better prep methods,” female cardiac patients can decrease their chance of encountering severe forms of heart disease.

It is critical that medical professionals “listen to what a woman says about her symptoms.” Female patients are incredibly likely to “be told their pain is ‘psychosomatic,’ or influenced by emotional distress.” For this reason it is equally important that women are direct with their physicians and “seek medical attention if [they’re] experiencing any new or distressing symptoms…, even if [they’re] unsure whether it’s serious or not.” A key element of “healthcare is prevention,” and that is especially true when discussing women’s risk of heart disease.  Heart attacks do not discriminate against age or gender, so “you’re never too young to start heart-healthy living.” Each and every woman can make strides to lower her own risk of heart disease by doing things like increasing her physical activity, eating more healthily, maintaining a healthy weight, visiting her cardiologist for regular screenings, limiting alcohol intake, refraining from smoking, and educating herself on the gender-specific signs of heart disease that may affect her. Taking steps to prevent heart attack and other variations of heart disease at an early age is crucial and can eventually save your life.

Visit a Cardiologist

With the help of a skilled and understanding medical professional, women may be able to avoid several heart health issues and/or receive proper care. Dr. Beheshtian is an interventional cardiologist who has treated over 1000 patients in New York and elsewhere. She is extremely knowledgeable about treatment paths for various types of cases, mild or complex. Please feel free to contact Avicenna Cardiology’s office with any questions. Schedule a telehealth appointment or come in soon to see Dr. Beheshtian, who will work with you to create a care plan, address lifestyle changes, and help you.

About the Author

Azadeh Beheshtian

Azadeh Beheshtian is board certified in cardiovascular disease and internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She specializes in interventional cardiology and peripheral artery disease, with a focus on women’s heart health.