February 3, 2017 was National Wear Red Day, an event held by the American Heart Association that raises awareness about the high risk of heart disease among women. Women have nearly double the risk of dying due to a heart attack as men do, and education about the signs and symptoms is necessary in order to help reduce and prevent these potentially fatal events from occurring.
Continue reading to learn about the prevalence of heart disease in women, as well as how to identify common heart attack symptoms and what effect aging has on a women’s heart as she ages.
Facts on women and heart disease
Cardiovascular disease and strokes are responsible for approximately one in every three American women’s deaths each year, meaning these issues kill one woman every 80 seconds. Approximately 44 million women in the U.S. alone are affected by cardiovascular disease, with 90% of them having at least one risk factor for developing heart disease or suffering a stroke. A significant 80% of cardiac and stroke events in women could be prevented through better education and lifestyle changes, which makes acknowledging these risk factors and treating them extremely important.
The risk of heart disease increases as women age, especially if they have experienced menopause. Annually, an estimated 88,000 women aged 45 to 64 experience a heart attack. Among those over the age of 65 who experience a heart attack, nearly half of those women will die within eight years. Heart disease rates are doubled and tripled for post-menopausal women.
Forty percent of women with heart problems will experience shortness of breath up to six months prior to a cardiac event because of lack of oxygen caused by a weak heart. Unlike men, women are more prone to experiencing severe fatigue because of a heart attack. Over 70 percent of women experience extreme fatigue months prior to a heart attack and this fatigue can worsen causing legs to feel heavier. If you fatigue is sudden without overexertion, then go see your doctor.
Worldwide, 8.6 million women die from heart disease annually. Nearly eight million American women currently live with heart disease in the U.S. Women under the age of 50 who experience a heart attack are twice as likely to die compared to men.
Common heart attack symptoms in women over 50
Women and men may experience different heart attack symptoms. For women, these symptoms can be classified as typical or atypical. Typical symptoms include chest pain that feels like pressure, squeezing, or stabbing pains in the center or left side of the chest. Discomfort and pain in the arms is also considered a typical symptom, most notably in the left arm. This pain can also spread to the neck and jaw. Typical symptoms also include nausea and vomiting, as well as shortness of breath and fatigue.
Atypical symptoms experienced by women over 50 who are suffering a heart attack include abdominal pain or discomfort, excessive sweating, lightheadedness and dizziness, toothache, weak or irregular pulse, and unusual levels of anxiety and stress.
Women may also experience indigestion, nausea, and stomach pain. This can be a result of fatty deposits blocking arteries, which limits blood flow resulting in angina. For some, angina presents itself as pain. In others, the signal can be sent to your stomach causing digestive distress. Women over the age of 60 are more likely to experience indigestion because of an impending cardiac event. Stomach pains may also worsen with physical activity and improve at rest. If this occurs, see your doctor.
Being a postmenopausal woman greatly increases your risk of a heart attack, especially a fatal one. It is of the utmost importance that if you fall into this category that you take the necessary steps to protect your heart and reduce your risk of a heart attack.
Factors that Increase Heart Attack Risk at 40 and 50
There are many factors that increase the risk of a heart attack in women aged 40 to 50. One factor is known as SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection). This occurs when the innermost three layers of the arteries tear spontaneously, which causes a clot or flap that narrows blood flow or blocks it completely. Factors that increase a woman’s risk of SCAD include hormonal changes, such as those found in pregnancy or menopause, and women with connective tissue disorders like noncoronary fibromuscular dysplasia.
Symptoms of SCAD are very similar to those of a heart attack and it’s best you seek out immediate medical attention when you experience these symptoms to rule out SCAD or a heart attack. Both are very dangerous and the sooner they are caught, the better the outcome can be.
Treatment is different between SCAD and a heart attack. For example, a stent is very effective at treating a heart attack but not nearly as effective at treating SCAD. Your doctor will need to determine if a stent is useful in the treatment of SCAD or not.
As mentioned, menopause plays a large contributing factor to the risk of a heart attack in women. Particularly, women who experience early menopause are at an even greater risk. Research findings uncovered that women who experience menopause between 40 and 45 are at a higher risk for a heart attack than those who undergo menopause later in life.
Women who smoke are more likely to experience menopause earlier compared to non-smokers. This leads to another reason as to why one should not smoke. Not only is it bad for your health, but it can speed up menopause, which increases the risk of a heart attack.
An alternative study not only confirmed the findings that early menopause hurts a woman’s heart but that it increases a woman’s risk of coronary heart disease. On the other hand, no association was found between early menopause and stroke.
Lastly, hot flashes, a common symptom of menopause, has been shown to be an indicator of an early vascular dysfunction that could ultimately lead to heart disease. Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of NAMS, explained, “In this study, physiologically measured hot flashes appear linked to cardiovascular changes occurring early during the menopause transition.”
High Protein Diet Linked with Heart Failure Risk in Women over 60
A 2016 study found a link between a high protein diet and a higher risk of heart failure among women over 60. The researchers reviewed self-reported data on diets of 103,878 women. Of the group, 1,711 women developed heart failure. There was a higher risk of heart failure among women who had a greater dietary intake of protein compared to those who consumed the least amount of protein.
Study author Mohamad Firas Barbour explained, “Higher calibrated total dietary protein intake appears to be associated with substantially increased heart failure risk while vegetable protein intake appears to be protective, although additional studies are needed to further explore this potential association.”
“While a better understanding of dietary risk is still needed, it appears that heart failure among postmenopausal women is not only highly prevalent but preventable by modifying diet. Heart failure is highly prevalent, especially in post-menopausal women; therefore, a better understanding of nutrition-related factors associated with heart failure is needed,” Barbour concluded.
Impact of aging on a woman’s heart
As women age, their risk of dying from heart disease increases. A woman’s chance of suffering a heart attack doubles between the ages of 60 and 79, and doubles again once they hit 80. The risk of a heart attack being fatal increases significantly every ten years for women, and the higher risk almost always begins after menopause.
Key differences between heart attacks in men and women
Some of the major differences between heart attacks in men and women are:
- Plaque build-up in arteries can differ between sexes—women are less likely to undergo stenting to open blocked arteries, but still suffer from blood vessel damage and reduced blood flow.
- High blood pressure is a stronger risk factor for women than men, and diabetes increases women’s risk of heart disease fivefold.
- Guideline-recommended medications are underused in women versus men, and women are less likely to be recommended cardiac rehabilitation.
- Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, back or jaw pain, and nausea and vomiting, as opposed to chest pains as an early sign of a heart attack.
- Women may not experience chest pain or discomfort when having a heart attack, the symptom that is often referred to as the first clear indicator of an attack.
- Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath and extreme fatigue as a telltale symptom.
- Women are twelve times more likely to experience throat discomfort than men during a heart attack.
Tips for women to achieve a stronger heart
Six key tips for women to achieve a healthier and stronger heart are:
Control your risk factors: Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease, so it’s important to manage these conditions. Talk to your healthcare provider about an effective treatment plan.
Don’t smoke: If you smoke, try to quit.
Maintain a healthy weight and get regular physical activity: Walking is a great way to start getting active and begin to lose or maintain a healthy weight, though it is important to speak with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.
Eat a heart-healthy diet: A diet that’s full of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is good for your heart. Limit the amount of saturated fat and sugary beverages in your diet.
Talk with your doctor about aspirin: Daily use of low-dose aspirin is not right for everyone. Aspirin can have side effects, so talk with your healthcare provider first.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack: Symptoms of heart attacks in women can be different from those in men. For women, they may include shortness of breath, nausea, and an ache or feeling of tightness in the chest, arm, neck, jaw, or abdomen.
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for American women, and the risk of suffering a fatal heart attack only increases with age. It is vital that women and those around them educate themselves on the risk factors and symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease, as well as heart attacks and strokes, so they may work actively towards preventing these issues.
Related: Angina vs. Heart Attack: Differences in Complications, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments