Heart disease is the number one cause of death in women, although many women still think of it as primarily as a man’s disease.
Fact is, heart disease is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined. While 1 in 31 American women will die from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 women will die from heart disease (that’s approximately one woman every minute).
And the scary truth is that since 1984, more women than men have died from heart disease, partly because the symptoms in women are often misunderstood. With an estimated 43 million women in the U.S. affected by heart disease, 35,000 of which are under the age of 65, it’s important for women to know the differences between men’s and women’s symptoms.
The most known form of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), in which plaque builds up in the large arteries around the heart – ultimately causing a heart attack. Angiographic studies can serve as an early detection for potential heart attacks, but unfortunately, this method often fails for women. In men, plaque distributes in clumps and is easier to identify via angiogram. In women plaque distributes more evenly throughout artery walls, which makes it more difficult to identify. Angiographic study results are therefore misinterpreted as “normal”.
Likewise, women tend to wait longer than men to go to an emergency room when having a heart attack because they don’t realize it. Chest pain, the most classic symptoms of cardiac problems, does not always manifest in women as it does in men. In fact, some women may feel no chest pain at all. Instead, women experience milder symptoms such as neck pain, nausea, shortness of breath, or extreme fatigue and weakness that they might mistake for the flu.
While 71% of women experience an extreme onset of these early warning signs of heart attack, physicians too are slower to recognize the presence of heart attacks in women because “characteristic” patterns of chest pain and EKG changes are less frequently present – so women aren’t treated appropriately or as quickly, which contributes to a greater number of heart attacks.
Sadly, heart attacks in women have proven to be more fatal than in men. 42% of women who have heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24% of men. And for women under the age of 50, a heart attack is twice as likely as men’s to be fatal.
The statistics regarding women’s fatalities versus men’s are paralyzing:
- 435,000 American women have heart attacks annually, and the average age is 70.4 (83,000 are under age 65, 35,000 are under 550).
- 267,000 women die each year from heart attacks; 6 times as many women as breast cancer.
- 31, 837 women die each year of congestive heart failure. This represents 62.6% of all heart failure deaths.
- Women are twice as likely as men to die within the first few weeks after suffering a heart attack.
- 46% of female and 22% of male heart attack survivors will be disabled with heart failure within six years.
- Women are two to three times as likely to die following heart bypass surgery. Younger aged women between the ages of 40-59 are up to 4 times more likely to die from heart bypass surgery than men the same age.
- Stroke accounts for more deaths among women than men (11% vs 8.4%)
While studies into the differences between heart disease in women and men have increased, there are significant holes in the research when it comes to women’s heart health. Currently, 90% of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease, yet women comprise only 24% of participants in all heart-related studies and the best course of treatment for a woman with heart disease has yet to be established.
But there is some good news. Women's hearts have been shown to respond better than men's to healthy lifestyle changes. So, exercise, eating right and reducing stress are all things that women can do to reduce their risk for heart disease.