Woman makes heart shape with hands

Heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined — but only about half of all women know that, according to the American Heart Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 80% of deaths from cardiovascular disease can be prevented by changing unhealthy lifestyle choices. Most women between the ages of 40 and 60 have at least one risk factor for the disease, says Purvi Parwani, MD, director of the Women’s Heart Health Clinic at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute.

“Women are often unaware of their risk for heart disease and may not even know they already have it,” she says.

Parwani says some women don't experience any symptoms, while others may have less obvious signs. Symptoms of heart disease can include discomfort, pain, numbness, shortness of breath, irregular pulse or heart palpitations, high or low blood pressure, anxiety, nausea, abnormal sweating, unexplained fatigue, or swelling in the limbs.

Risk Factors

Knowing your risk factors for heart disease is vital to maintaining your overall health, Parwani says.

“The more risk factors you have and the worse they are, the greater your risk for heart disease,” she says.

Once you know your risk factors, you can learn whether you're at high, intermediate, or low risk for heart disease. Then you can set goals and work with your healthcare provider to reach them. Universal risk factors for heart disease include:

  • Age — in women, of 55 years old or older
  • High blood pressure or cholesterol
  • Smoking is associated with half of all coronary events (i.e., heart attacks) in women.
  • Diabetes nearly doubles the risk of fatal coronary artery disease.
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • Obesity or being overweight makes you more apt to develop conditions like high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes that can lead to heart disease.
  • Physical inactivity increases the likelihood of developing other risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.
  • Sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke, and heart failure.
  • Chronic kidney disease requires the heart to pump harder to get blood to the kidneys, placing stress on the heart that could lead to heart disease.

Heart disease risk factors that affect women more than men include:

  • Autoimmune diseases disproportionately affect women, including inflammatory and autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma, which are associated with an increased risk of heart inflammation, heart and valve disease, and heart attacks.
  • Being past menopause leads to lower levels of estrogen that once formed a protective lining within blood vessels.
  • Birth control pills, particularly for women who are over 35 years old and smoke
  • Depression or stress. Physicians are beginning to suspect that cardiovascular conditions commonly seen in women and rarely in men, such as vasospastic angina and broken heart syndrome, are tied to stress and depression, amongst other differences between the genders.
  • Pregnancy-related factors include developing diabetes, eclampsia or pre-eclampsia, premature birth, placenta, or vascular issues.

Read: Underdiagnosed form of heart failure in women — physician, patients spread the word

Lifestyle Changes

Parwani recommends understanding which risk factors are controllable and following lifestyle changes to help put you on the path to a heart-healthy life:

  • Move more and keep a healthy weight. You'll reduce three key risk factors: blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Create a heart-healthy diet. Trim saturated fat and salt from your menu. Add a good source of omega-3 fats to help reduce triglycerides, clotting, and blood pressure.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking is the most common risk factor for women as it triples your heart attack risk.
  • De-stress daily. Try visiting a friend, listening to music, practicing breathing exercises, or engaging in physical activity.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider. Discuss your risk factors for heart disease and work together to create a prevention or treatment plan.
  • Know your numbers. Understanding the outcomes of your health assessments will deepen your relationship with your heart health and keep you attuned to changes.

LLU Women's Heart Health Clinic provides complete cardiovascular disease care uniquely tailored for women. World-class heart specialists and surgeons help you understand your risk and navigate the prevention, detection, and treatment of heart disease. Find more information online or call 1-800-468-5432 to schedule an appointment.