Heart health in women: what you need to know

The second most common cause of death in UK adults is coronary heart disease, highlighting the importance of cardiovascular health for everyone. 

However, heart disease is still often associated with men’s health rather than women’s health. This is despite the fact that women in the UK are twice as likely to die of a heart attack — which is most often brought about by heart disease — than of breast cancer

Women are also 50% more likely than men to receive an incorrect initial diagnosis after their heart attack. What’s more, even once correctly diagnosed, women are still half as likely to receive appropriate heart attack treatments. 

Raising awareness of women’s heart health and the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can help ensure women receive accurate diagnoses and treatment as soon as possible. 

Here we’ll explore common heart attack symptoms in women. 

Heart attack symptoms in women

As mentioned earlier, heart attacks are most often caused by underlying heart disease. 

The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain that may radiate into the left arm — this occurs equally often in men and women. Other common heart attack symptoms are breathlessness, lightheadedness and sweating.

Heart attack symptoms that women are less likely to experience include a burning sensation or tightness in the chest, and a pain that feels similar to indigestion. 

Heart attack symptoms that women are more likely to experience include chest pain that radiates to the jaw or upper back and nausea.

If you notice any of these symptoms, call 999 or visit your local A&E as soon as possible.

Heart disease risk factors for women

Your risk of heart disease, whether you are a man or a woman, is higher if you are overweight or obese, have high cholesterol and/or have high blood pressure

However, there are other risk factors that pose a greater risk to women than men. For example, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes increase the risk of heart disease more in women than in men. Smoking similarly increases the risk of heart disease more in women than in men; specifically, the risk is 25% greater in women. 

Conditions that develop in pregnant women, such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), increase the lifelong risk of heart disease. 

Menopause and heart disease

Menopause also has an important role to play in increasing the risk of heart disease in women. This is because the hormonal changes that occur during menopause can increase multiple risk factors for heart disease including: raising cholesterol levels, increasing blood pressure, making it harder to control blood sugar levels (which increases the risk of diabetes) and increasing fat deposits around the heart.  

How to stay heart healthy

When it comes to preventing heart disease, both men and women should focus on staying active, ideally engaging in moderate to vigorous exercise for 150 minutes every week, following a healthy, balanced diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein and wholegrains, and maintaining a healthy weight

If you’re aged 40 or over, it’s also important to attend regular health check-ups to monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 

If you are perimenopausal or are going through menopause and are worried about your heart health, speak to your GP for advice and information about medications that may help. 

Author biography

Dr Bart Olechowski is a Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at Spire Clare Park Hospital and Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He specialises in all aspects of general cardiology and interventional cardiology, including ischemic heart disease. He sees patients with chest pains, breathlessness, blackouts, ankle swelling and palpitations. Dr Bart has performed over 1,000 stenting procedures and regularly treats patients with acute heart problems. Dr Olechowski is also accredited by the British Society of Echocardiography and performs echocardiograms himself during clinical consultations.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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