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These Are the Most Common Heart Conditions in Women

Women are at risk of heart disease just like men. 

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Many think of heart disease as primarily affecting men. In reality, one in three women will die of cardiovascular disease, and one third of all maternal deaths can be attributed to it. Women are less likely than men to receive the appropriate treatment for heart disease and often have a higher risk of serious complications and mortality than men with the same illness. 

“Knowing you are at risk of developing heart disease and taking steps to keep your heart healthier is one of the best things you can do for your health,” said Nadia Shaikh, MD, Interventional Cardiologist with St. Joseph’s Medical Center. Here are some of the most common cardiovascular conditions affecting women:

  • Coronary artery disease. This is when plaque forms in the walls of the arteries that supply blood to your heart. This is the most common cause of heart attacks. Women are more likely to feel atypical symptoms and are more likely to be misdiagnosed than men. 
  • Congestive heart failure. This refers to when your heart does not pump blood as efficiently as normal, which eventually leads to fluid retention. There are various causes for this, some reversible, but most are primarily treated with medication and lifestyle changes. The most common symptoms of heart failure are new onset shortness of breath and foot swelling.
  • Arrhythmias. There are many different kinds of abnormal heart rhythm. Some arrhythmias are relatively harmless, but others can cause serious complications, such as increasing your risk of stroke. In some cases, arrhythmias may result in sudden cardiac arrest. Let your doctor know if you get palpitations as it is important to identify if you have an arrhythmia and get appropriate treatment.
  • Hypertension. Known as “the silent killer,” over half of high blood pressure related deaths occur in women. Fewer than 1 in 4 women have their high blood pressure under control and the condition is often underdiagnosed in women. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. It is important to see your primary care doctor regularly to be screened for this.

Heart attacks often present differently in women than men.

There are classic symptoms that we think of when we worry someone is having a heart attack. Most of what we know about heart disease is based on studies done on white males. Women and people of color are more likely to have what we call “atypical presentations.” Here are some ways in which women can have an atypical heart attack.

Typical Atypical
The classic picture of a heart attack is someone with chest pain or pressure radiating to the arm. Women are more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or pain radiating to the jaw or back.
Pain is typically induced by physical exertion. Pain is more likely to be induced by emotional stress.
The number one cause of heart  attack is coronary artery  disease (plaque in the coronary  arteries). Unusual causes of heart attack  include spontaneous coronary artery dissection and broken heart syndrome. These are more likely to be experienced by women and are  treated differently than coronary artery disease.
“Angina” or chest pain is typically caused by plaque impairing blood flow in a large artery. This can be diagnosed and fixed with invasive procedures. Women are more likely to suffer from “microvascular angina” meaning the plaque is in tiny microscopic vessels. It therefore cannot be detected as easily and is treated with medication alone.


Here’s what you can do to lower your risk.

There are many risk factors which may increase a woman’s risk of having a heart attack. These include:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Age
  • Family history of early heart attacks
  • Gestational diabetes or hypertension
  • Early first period (before age 11)
  • Early menopause (before age 40)
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Although not every risk factor for heart disease is under your control, practicing healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way towards keeping your heart healthier and lowering your risk of developing heart disease. Smoking contributes to one third of deaths from heart disease and is the number one risk factor that we can modify. Managing your weight by following a healthy diet and getting in regular physical activity not only keeps your heart healthier but is good for your body in many other ways. Reducing stress and regularly seeing a doctor to check your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels are all proactive steps you can take to live a heart-healthy life. 

“Remember, the best treatment is prevention,” said Dr. Shaikh. “Cardiologists do not just treat people who already have heart disease, we also practice prevention. If you would like to discuss your risk for heart disease, or if you have a concerning change in symptoms, ask to see a cardiologist today.” 

For more information on St. Joseph’s Medical Center’s Morrissey Family Heart & Vascular Institute, please visit here, and to check your risk of heart disease, please visit here.


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Date Last Reviewed: December 19, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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