Cardiovascular Services

Women and Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. However, while outcomes for men with heart disease have improved over the past 5 years, they have worsened for women.*

Heart attacks on the rise in younger women

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.

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.

MaineHealth Women's Heart Health Clinic

The MaineHealth Women's Heart Health clinic offers a wide range of services including specialized care for women with cardiovascular conditions and cardio-obstetric care. We also provide prevention and management services for women who are at high risk for developing heart disease. The Medical Director of the Women's Heart Health clinic is Lila Martin, MD, MPH. For more information, or to refer a patient, please call 207-885-9905.

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.

Know Your Numbers

The numbers that help determine your heart disease risk are:

  • Total 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.

*Aggarwal, N. R., & Wood, M. (2021). Sex differences in cardiac diseases: Pathophysiology, presentation, diagnosis and management. Elsevier.