February is American Heart Month!

Written by Dr. Patty Bach

Risk Factors and Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women

Karen, 52, experienced shoulder pain, nausea and shortness of breath after a tennis match. She attributed her symptoms to feeling spent after exercise. Fortunately for Karen, her tennis partner Jackie knew that, in women, shoulder pain, nausea and shortness of breath are common signs of a heart attack. Jackie called 911 and the ambulance arrived seconds after Karen fainted.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women are different than symptoms men commonly experience. Many women have no chest pain or discomfort during a heart attack, and like Karen don’t recognize when they are having a heart attack.

February is heart health month, and a good time to learn more about warning signs of and risk factors for heart disease. Lowering your risk of heart disease will be addressed in a separate article.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. Cardiovascular disease includes several conditions that affect the structure or functioning of your heart. There are too many conditions to describe here, and it is helpful to know common symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease and heart attack.

Common symptoms of cardiovascular disease

  • Feeling winded or short of breath after activities you usually do with no problem
  • Irregular heartbeat, e.g., beating very rapidly, skipping beats
  • Snoring
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Feeling weak or exhausted for no good reason
  • A long-lasting cough
  • Swelling of the ankles, legs or feet (edema)

Many of these symptoms have causes other than heart disease. If any of the symptoms persist, or if you are at risk for heart disease see your doctor promptly; she can help you treat cardiovascular disease or risk factors.

Common symptoms of heart attack in women

  • Chest or stomach pain, tightness or pressure, or indigestion
  • Excessive sweating
  • Feeling weak or shaky and sometimes accompanied by dizziness or light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath or heavy breathing
  • Pain in the arm, shoulder, upper back, neck or jaw
  • Many women report sleep disturbance in the weeks before a heart attack

If you or a female companion experience these symptoms call 911 at once!

Factors that increase the risk of heart disease

  • Age, being post-menopausal (or having ovaries removed), using menopause hormone therapy
  • Family History, especially if your brother or father had heart disease before ago 55, or your sister or mother had heart disease before age 65.
  • Metabolic Syndrome – a group of risk factors that occur together – large waist size, high blood pressure, glucose intolerance, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high triglycerides
  • Rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus
  • High blood pressure (including gestational high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol or triglycerides
  • Smoking (especially in women that use birth control pills and smoke)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Diabetes (including gestational diabetes)
  • Poor sleep (increases risk of high blood pressure)
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Inactivity/sedentary lifestyle
  • Depression
  • Stress

Some of these risk factors are outside of your control, e.g., age and family history, while others such as smoking, diet, and inactivity are controllable. Behaviors that can help you reduce your risk of heart disease will be addressed in an upcoming post.