Men may be from Mars, but they have something in common with their counterparts from Venus: heart disease. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is often regarded as a mans problem, but it affects women, too and on a greater scale. In fact, while heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women, it kills more women annually. The American Heart Association reports that more women die each year from CVD than all forms of cancer combined, with heart disease-causing approximately one-third of deaths in women each year. Still, only one in 10 women considers heart disease to be their greatest health threat. Why?

The answer lies in a number of reasons. Much of the research conducted on heart disease in the past has been on men, often resulting in better diagnostic tools for men and greater awareness of the disease as a men’s health issue. Further more, tests like the exercise stress test, or stress ECG, are often less accurate in women, which may make it more difficult for physicians to evaluate a woman’s cardiovascular health. And while symptoms of a heart attack in both genders can be similar, women also have a tendency to experience less-obvious symptoms, like sudden shortness of breath or dizziness, rather than the obvious elephant sitting on the chest symptom, making it easier to confuse the symptoms until it’s too late.

In recent years, researchers have been focusing on learning more about women’s hearts. While there is still a lot to learn, we now know critical facts, signs and symptoms, and ways to take control that can make the difference between longevity and a life cut short by CVD.

We don’t have to let heart disease continue to be the No. 1 killer of women. By being aware of the risks and symptoms of cardiovascular disease and understanding ways to support heart health, women give themselves the best chance for living a long, healthy life.

Women and Heart Health

The facts

The stats don’t lie heart disease is a major concern for women.

  • Women tend to develop cardiovascular disease 10 years later than men, making it more likely that they may have an accompanying disease that masks heart attack symptoms. Age also makes their chance of survival less likely.
  • When a heart attack does strike, women under 50 are twice as likely to die as men. The same holds true for bypass surgery, in which twice as many women die as men.
  • Over one-third of female adults have some form of cardiovascular disease.
  • Of the women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease (CHD), two-thirds may have no previous symptoms.
  • A heart attack strikes approximately every 34 secondsĀ and it doesn’t care what gender you are.

Signs and symptoms in women

Regular testing is the best way to detect and help deter heart disease. But if a heart attack strikes, you need to know the signs and symptoms. Here are some things women need to watch for, from the American Heart Association:

  • Pain, fullness, squeezing or pressure in the center of your chest, particularly if it lasts more than a few minutes or subsides and then comes back.
  • Shortness of breath, which may or may not be accompanied by chest pain.
  • Discomfort or pain in the back, neck, jaw, stomach, or one or both arms.
  • Nausea, light-headedness or breaking out in a cold sweat.

Remember: While pain in the chest is the most common sign of a heart attack, women are more likely than men to experience other symptoms like jaw pain, nausea and vomiting, and shortness of breath.

Take control

Heart disease is often preventable. Follow this advice to help keep your heart healthy:
Get regular checkups. Assessing your blood cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure are the most common first steps toward getting an idea of the health of your heart. Based on the results, your doctor may decide to do further tests.

  • Stay smoke-free. Smoking may be associated with heart attacks even in younger women.
  • Lose weight. A lower body weight can lead to lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, as well as reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, a disease which increases the risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. A diet high in fruits and vegetables has been linked to lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease.
  • Consume less fat. In addition to lowering your total intake of fat, focus especially on reducing the amount of saturated fat you eat. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products, including meat, butter and lard.
  • Get moving. We all know exercise is good for us, but how good is it? Among other things, getting active can lower blood pressure and reduce triglycerides, a form of fat present in your bloodstream. Exercise also helps improve endothelial function (related to the inner lining of blood vessels) and may help keep the vessels dilated.

Jagat Narula, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of medicine, associate dean for Global Health and the director of the Cardiovascular Imaging Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, as well as a fellow of the American Heart Association.