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Women and Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of women, according the American Heart Association (AHA). It claims more women’s lives than all forms of cancer combined.

Research shows heart attacks are on the rise in younger women and new data from an AHA study suggests younger generations of women, Gen Z and Millennials, are less likely to be aware of their greatest health threat, including knowing the warning signs of heart attacks and strokes.

That’s why it’s important for all women to take charge of their heart health and encourage others to do the same. Starting at age 20, all women should get screened for cardiovascular disease.

Know Your Numbers

The key personal health numbers that help determine heart disease risk are:

  • Total cholesterol
  • HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Body mass index

Know your family history and talk to your doctor about heart disease. Even modest changes to diet and lifestyle can lower risk by as much as 80%, per the AHA. Make living a healthy lifestyle a priority by moving more, eating smart and managing blood pressure. Track your physical activity, diet and blood pressure.

Hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, can cause coronary artery disease and heart attacks in both men and women. Atherosclerosis causes fatty deposits called plaque to build up inside coronary arteries. These arteries provide blood and oxygen to the heart muscle.

In some people, this plaque build up can eventually narrow the arteries and limit blood flow. Limited blood flow can cause angina symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure. A heart attack occurs when not enough blood and oxygen reach the heart muscle. But for some women, the way that coronary artery disease and heart attacks happen seems to be a little different.

For example, women are more likely to have:

  • Non-obstructive coronary artery disease - In many women, plaque does not build up so much that it narrows arteries and blocks (obstructs) the blood flow. This is often called non-obstructive coronary artery disease. It can still cause symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure, and lead to a heart attack.
  • Microvascular coronary disease - With this disease, tiny blood vessels of the heart are damaged. These blood vessels carry blood from the coronary arteries into the heart muscle. If they suddenly contract, or spasm, the heart muscle gets less blood and oxygen. This can cause angina symptoms, like chest pain or pressure, and even a heart attack.
  • Less common causes of heart attacks - In most people, a heart attack happens when a plaque breaks open and a blood clot blocks blood flow in a coronary artery. But women are more likely to have heart attacks that are caused by other things. For example, a spasm in a coronary artery can block blood flow and cause a heart attack. Or a sudden tear in a coronary artery, called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), can cause a heart attack.

Know the Signs

Heart attack and stroke are life-or-death emergencies — every second counts so it is important to know the warning signs. If you think you or someone you’re with has any symptoms of heart attack or stroke, call 911 immediately.

Heart Health Questions?

MaineHealth health educators provide trusted and reliable health information and can connect you or a loved one to local resources in the community. Connect with a health educator today.