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.
What role does gender play in heart health?
Women and men share most of the classic risk factors for cardiovascular disease—including aging, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and being overweight.
Dr. Caleb Thompson, an interventional and structural cardiologist with Dignity Health Medical Group – Golden Empire Cardiology, explains the differences between men's and women’s heart health.
“Pre-menopausal women tend to not think about heart disease. If a woman has risk factors or develops risk factors—like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, history of smoking, or family history—their risk for heart attack increases after menopause.”
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 can 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.
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.
Dr. Thompson discusses a new treatment approach for heart valve replacement. The transcatheter mitral valve replacement targets patients who have already had mitral valve surgery and need to replace their current valve.