What does someone with heart disease look like? A stressed-out CEO? A smoker over 50? Whatever image came to your mind, chances are it was of a male. We think of heart disease as a male problem, but did you know that more women die of heart disease than men? It's now the leading cause of female deaths worldwide. Yet up until recently, two-thirds of all heart health research has focused exclusively on men. What’s wrong with this picture? If you’re a woman at risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) there is good news: researchers are now stepping up to close the gender gap and prioritize female-based cardiac research. Let’s see what the latest research is saying about female-specific heart disease factors and how you can reduce your risk. Women’s Bodies Are Different We may think of women’s ‘hearts’ as different than men’s when it comes to relationships, but what about literally? It turns out that women’s hearts and arteries tend to be physically smaller than men’s. Plaque build-up in our arteries is a key factor in all heart disease, and smaller arteries mean they can get clogged faster in women. Different Plaque Deposits It's not just anatomical differences - the way that arterial plaques and injuries show up in women can be very different from men, which is one reason women are often misdiagnosed. This may be why more women die from heart attacks than men, and why women are more likely to have second heart attacks.
Heart attack symptoms often look different in women.
Sharp chest pains can precede a heart attack in everyone, but women may have additional symptoms such as extreme fatigue, trouble breathing, nausea, and pain across the stomach and upper back. The research tells a troubling story. When female patients report stress alongside recognized heart disease symptoms, they are significantly more likely than men to be given an anxiety diagnosis, even when the same heart-related symptoms are reported. What Special Risks Factors Do Women Have? * Obesity and smoking: Of the many shared factors, obesity and smoking are the ones that most often impact women more than men. * Breast cancer treatment: Women receiving chemo and radiation for breast cancer are more vulnerable, even after treatment is completed. * Inflammation: Chronic inflammation, such as in auto-immune disease, also increases women’s risk. And guess what, women are more prone to auto-immune conditions. * Hormones, in particular estrogen: We think of estrogen as the quintessential female hormone, affecting our periods, pregnancy, and benefitting our whole body. Before menopause estrogen is protective to our hearts. After menopause, with lower estrogen, our risk rises to be similar to men’s. Reducing Your Risk of Heart Disease In addition to not smoking and reducing stress, weight management is a very effective way for women to reduce heart disease risk. Excess weight is hard on the heart, and is a more significant heart disease risk factor for women than men. Let’s look at a few easy ways to improve your heart health: Get Moving Current medical guidelines suggest that women should engage in a minimum of 2.5 to 3 hours per week of vigorous physical exercise. If that sounds like a lot, try breaking it up into exercise bites of 10 - 15 minutes each. Take a walk during work breaks, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or have a personal dance party! Eat More Plants You don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan to welcome more plant foods into your life. The key is to make it enjoyable by choosing fruits and veggies that you like, and get lots of variety. Think of veggies as the main course instead of the side dish - aim to have at least 60% of your lunch and dinner plates covered with veggies. Don’t be afraid to try something new! Eat Good Fats When your body craves fat, it's not asking for more chips. It really wants good fats: the essential fatty acids found in foods like salmon, avocado and walnuts. But if you don’t eat these foods often, they’re not on your body’s radar. Try adding these foods to your diet, and see if you notice a change in your fat cravings. Once your body gets to know these nutrient-dense foods it will crave them more often! Selenium Studies show that low selenium levels are strongly linked to heart disease risk. Selenium is one of the most effective antioxidant minerals for protecting your heart and blood vessels. Brazil nuts are by far the best food source of selenium, with a handful providing ten times the recommended daily minimum!
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