Women and heart disease – The warning signs that could save a life

February 2013 View more

NMAG0213_HealthFebruary is American Heart Health Month. For women, taking proper care of your blood-pumping machine is more important than ever. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer for women, more so than breast cancer. In fact, women have a one in three chance of getting heart disease compared to a one in eight chance of getting breast cancer.


Many believe that heart disease is a man’s disease. However, according to statistics, women are just about as likely to have a heart attack as men. However, women are more likely to die after their first heart attack because women’s symptoms are different than those for men. “Most women will feel a sensation in their chest that they don’t like to call chest pain. They think of it as heaviness, discomfort or heartburn. So they often get misdiagnosed,” said Dr. Annabelle Volgman, medical director of the Rush Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center. Women may wait to talk to their doctor, perhaps out of denial or not being aware of both typical and atypical heart attack symptoms.

Men usually experience crushing chest pain during a heart attack, while women rarely feel it coming. Women may experience shortness of breath, back or jaw pain, and flu-like symptoms. They may not have chest pain at all. And age can also be misleading. “Younger women have a higher mortality rate than older women and men of their same age. There is often a delay in their diagnosis since they are not expected to have heart disease. Big mistake,” said Dr. Volgman.


When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up in your arteries. This increases your risk of developing heart disease. Knowing your cholesterol numbers is key, even when you’re feeling healthy. If your levels are too high, your doctor will more than likely suggest lifestyle changes and medications. About one in every two American women has high cholesterol. The condition usually has no signs or symptoms, so many people don’t know their levels are unhealthy. To determine your cholesterol level, doctors will often recommend a cholesterol screening. If you have family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, you should be particularly aggressive in monitoring your cholesterol levels.

Recommended Screening Schedule for Women:

Once during childhood: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children have a baseline cholesterol screening between the ages of 9 and 11.

The teen years: This is especially important if there are any risk factors of cardiovascular disease.

At age 20, and every five years:  This follows the recommendations of the American Heart Association.

What you do each day can determine your risk for cardiovascular disease. It develops over a period of time, and you might not become aware of it, until it’s too late. So ladies, take a moment during this Heart Health Month to make sure you’re living a healthy lifestyle. “Be screened for risk factors such as blood pressure, lipids (cholesterol, triglycerides), family history, diabetes and cigarette smoking. If they have these risk factors, they need to get taken care of if possible,” said Dr. Volgman.