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What women need to know about heart disease

There’s more to women’s health than the anatomy that makes them female. Recent studies reveal that the same diseases affect men and women differently. Genes, hormones, and lifestyles play a role.

For years, heart disease was regarded as a man’s disease. But it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women. And it’s increasing for women – from 46% in 2003 to 57% in 2010.

“Women are nurturers, but we can’t take care of families or help out in our communities if we don’t take care of our health,” says Altagracia Chavez, Cleveland Clinic Heart Center, and a member of the Woman Heart Scientific Advisory Council.

On average, women have their first heart attack about 10 years later than men, but they’re nearly twice as likely as men to die. They also have a higher mortality rate in the first year following a heart attack: 38% vs. 25%.

The warning signs

Heart attack warning signs in women differ from men, resulting in less recognition of the disease. Women may be short of breath, have jaw, neck, or back pain, and feel fatigued. Often they have vague, flu-like symptoms including a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.

Even when a woman exhibits the classic symptoms of heart attack (shortness of breath, chest pain, or irregular heartbeat under stress), she is more likely to be misdiagnosed.

In one study, 62% of men experiencing these symptoms were referred to a cardiologist, compared to only 30% of women. A medication was prescribed for 47% of men; only 13% of women were prescribed medication.

Women tend to build up plaque in smaller coronary arteries, while men have blockages in larger arteries.

“Fortunately, women can increase their chances of surviving a heart attack and reduce their risks of developing heart disease,” says Gayle Coleman, nutrition specialist with University of Wisconsin Extension.

Women without symptoms should focus on their test results for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Age and family history are risk factors. Here are five ways to help your heart:

1. Stop smoking.

2. Lose excess weight.

3. Lower cholesterol levels.

4. Lower blood pressure.

5. Control blood sugar level.

An estimated 45% of diabetic women develop significant coronary heart disease. Depression also increases the risk of heart disease by two to three times in women. Depression is twice as common in women as men. So it is essential for women to seek help for depression.

According to the 2011 10Q Report by the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, more research is needed.

“The 10Q Report reveals a startling lack of research into how women and men are genetically different in cardiovascular disease symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment,” says Lisa Tate, WomenHeart.

More women are needed to participate in clinical trials to gain accurate data leading to appropriate prevention and early detection plans, accurate diagnosis, and proper treatment of women.

For more information on the HEART for Women Act introduced by Representative Lois Capps (D-CA), visit the Web at

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