It’s common knowledge that the heart is at the center of the circulatory system for our body, but did you know there are significant differences in men’s and women’s hearts? Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in America, but certain risk factors differ due to biological reasons. While risk factors for heart disease are well known, cardiologists and other health care providers are creating more accurate diagnostic and treatment plans to help everyone live healthier lives. These include:
- 3D mapping. This tracks the electrical activity of your heart muscle to help pinpoint the source of heart arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat).
- Angioplasty. This can increase blood flow to your heart by inflating a tiny balloon inside blocked coronary arteries.
- Pacemaker. This is a medical device implanted in your chest that helps your heart maintain a normal rhythm.
What role does gender play in heart health?
Women and men share most of the classic risk factors for cardiovascular disease. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Being overweight
What are female-specific risk factors for heart disease?
Sex hormones strongly affect the cardiovascular system. For example, research has shown that naturally occurring estrogen relaxes arteries, allowing blood to pass through them more easily. Conditions that affect the hormones in a woman’s body and therefore increase their risk of heart disease include (but are not limited to):
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which creates excess androgen, a male sex hormone. Androgen can decrease the effects of estrogen in the body.
- Menopause, which results in a decrease in naturally occurring estrogen in the body.
What are male-specific risk factors for heart disease?
It's important to discuss your entire medical history with your cardiologist to understand how to stay healthy and make lifestyle changes if needed. There are several male-specific risk factors for heart disease. These include:
- Being overweight or obese
- Poor diet
- Lack of physical activity
- Heavy alcohol consumption
Additionally, men who have been diagnosed with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and lower urinary tract symptoms (LUTSs) have a higher risk of heart disease later in life.
How do heart attacks differ between men and women?
Women have gender-specific diseases and conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and gestational diabetes, which can promote risk factors for heart disease. However, men are more at risk for a heart attack earlier in life than women—the average age for men is 66, while age 70 is the average for women. This age difference could be due to higher estrogen levels in women providing some protection before menopause sets in.
Blockages in smaller arteries are also more common in women than in men and can be more difficult to diagnose using a coronary angiogram, a test that finds blockages in the heart. Besides an angiogram, other diagnostic tools can be used to detect heart-related issues, including electrocardiograms, echocardiograms, and a cardiac CT or MRI.
Additionally, women often exhibit different symptoms than men when experiencing a heart attack, making this medical emergency more challenging to recognize. While heart attacks can often be accompanied by chest pain, tightness, or discomfort, it is important to note that these chest-related symptoms may not always be present. Signs like sudden exhaustion or shortness of breath without any exertion are red flags women should pay attention to, along with pain in the neck, back, shoulders, or jaw. If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
What do gender differences mean for the treatment and prevention of heart disease?
When diagnostic criteria were first established, they did not always consider gender differences. However, it has been determined that various approaches are necessary to properly treat cardiovascular disease in different individuals. Cardiologists are taking steps to customize prevention and treatment methods for some heart-related issues, like disease risk factors.
Whether you are a man or a woman, it is never too late to think about your heart health. Current steps you can take include getting at least 30 minutes of regular exercise each day and eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish to maintain a healthy weight. It’s also important to maintain control of diabetes and hypertension, as well as to avoid or quit smoking. Speak with a Dignity Health primary care physician about any questions surrounding heart-healthy living, or schedule a visit with a Dignity Health cardiologist if there are any serious issues you wish to discuss.