Heart disease is the top killer of men and women, but it affects men and women differently. It’s important to understand the differences to protect the hearts and lives of women and help them get the best care. For Heart Month, we look at some of the differences between men and women.
In the past, experts used to think women’s hearts were like the hearts of small men. Since then researchers have discovered lots of ways that they differ.
In general women develop heart disease later than men because estrogen—the main female hormone—protects the heart. After menopause, estrogen starts to decline. Then women’s risk of heart attacks and strokes rises to the same level as men.
Here are some of the ways that men and women are different when it comes to heart disease.
- Women have different kinds of heart disease.
Men tend to have plaque accumulate in the large arteries that feed their heart. Women often have problems with the heart’s tiniest blood vessels. Even if these blood vessels don’t have plaque, damage to the walls of the blood vessels can lead to spasms and decrease blood flow to the heart muscle. Unfortunately this kind of heart disease is harder to detect and treat.
- Women’s blood vessels age faster than men’s.
According to a new study that tracked 30,000 people for four decades, women’s blood vessels start to break down and work less efficiently earlier than men’s. This can cause blood pressure to rise as early as age 30. And it keeps climbing, raising the risk for heart disease as women get older.
This means women need to take special care to monitor their blood pressure to get and keep it under control. If a healthy diet, exercise, and stress management don’t lower it, prescription medication may be needed to help lower risk of heart attack (or stroke). Since high blood pressure can’t be felt, be sure to talk with your doctor about this risk factor.
- Women take longer to receive heart care when a problem occurs.
There are several reasons for this. Women may have different symptoms when they are having a heart attack. While more men have the classic signs like chest pain or pain in the left arm or shoulder, women often have nausea, unusual fatigue or shortness of breath, back pain, sweating, or dizziness instead. If no EKG is done to examine the heart, doctors may miss these symptoms and send women home.
Women also wait longer to seek help when they are having a heart attack or other problem. They often ignore their symptoms, and as the caretaker for the entire family, are in the habit of putting others’ health ahead of their own. This may be deadly.
If you suspect you or a woman you are with is having a heart attack, don’t wait. Get help immediately by calling 911. And tell paramedics and doctors at the hospital that you think you are having a heart attack.
- Women are less likely to be treated with medication to prevent heart attack.
There’s some evidence that women are less likely than men to get prescriptions for medications that are recommended to prevent heart problems and lower risks. These include cholesterol- and blood pressure-lowering drugs and blood thinners. Even after having a heart attack, women are less likely to have helpful drugs prescribed. Speak up to prevent an event!
If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or other risk factors for heart disease, ask your doctor if a prescription would help you.
Heart disease kills more women and men than any other disease—but it doesn’t have to take your life or the life of the women you love. Some 80 percent of heart attacks and strokes may be prevented with education and action. So let’s get started!