Lower Your Risk for the Number 1 Killer of Women

Learn about heart disease and women and what you can do to keep a healthy heart.

Female doctor reviewing notes on an iPad with female patient

Heart attacks and strokes can be catastrophic, life-changing events that are all too common. Heart disease and stroke are preventable, yet they remain leading causes of death, disability, and healthcare spending in the US. Alarmingly, many of these events happen to adults ages 35-64—over 800,000 in 2016.

Get Informed: Facts on Women and Heart Disease

High blood pressure, high LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol because having high levels can lead to buildup in your arteries and result in heart disease and stroke. Controlling your blood pressure, managing your cholesterol, not smoking, and regular physical activity will reduce your chances for heart disease.

Some conditions and lifestyle choices increase a person’s chance for heart disease, including diabetes, overweight and obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use.

Black women are about 60 percent more likely than white women to have heart attacks, primarily because of socioeconomic factors such as poor insurance coverage, lack of quality care and insufficient prenatal counseling.

Top heart attack predictors included congestive heart failure, anemia and pregnancy-related complications such as preeclampsia, gestational high blood pressure, and an imbalance of fluids and electrolytes.

Post-menopausal women are also at a higher risk for heart disease compared to their pre-menopausal years. While some research links this to the decrease in estrogen that post-menopausal women experience, there are other reasons for this connection that are still being studied.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. About 1 in every 5 female deaths are linked to heart disease.

About 6.5% of all non-Hispanic black women and 6.1 % of non-Hispanic white women have coronary heart disease.

Pregnant women 40 or older have a 10-fold higher risk of having a heart attack.

Symptoms

Sometimes heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until a woman has signs or symptoms including:

  • Heart Attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath.
  • Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest.
  • Heart Failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen.
What You Can Do for Heart Health
Older woman grocery shopping

You can lower your chance of heart disease and a heart attack by taking simple steps.

  • Eat a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Choose foods low in saturated fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.
  • Manage any medical condition you might have. Learn the ABCS of heart health. Keep them in mind every day and especially when you talk to your health provider:
    • Appropriate Aspirin therapy for those who need it
    • Blood pressure control
    • Cholesterol management
    • Smoking cessation
  • Be smokefree. If you are ready to quit, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) or 1-855-DÉJELO-YA (1-855-335-3569 for Spanish speakers) for free resources, including free quit coaching, a free quit plan, free educational materials, and referrals to other resources where you live.
  • Limit alcohol use, which can lead to long-term health problems, including heart disease, liver disease, and cancer. If you do choose to drink, do so in moderation, which is no more than one drink a day for women. Do not drink at all if you are pregnant.
  • Manage stress levels. Various studies have shown the impact of trauma, depression, anxiety, and stress on the body, including stress on the heart. Find healthy ways to cope with stress.
  • Be physically active. Adults should strive for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes (or 150 minutes total) of physical activity each week. You can spread your activity out during the week, and can break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day.
  • Know your family history. There may be factors that could increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
  • Take the Heart Disease Quiz
Citations:
  1. Bremner JD, Campanella C, Khan Z, et al. Brain Correlates of Mental Stress-Induced Myocardial Ischemia. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2018;80(6):515-525.
  2. Del Gaizo AL, Elhai JD, Weaver TL. Posttraumatic stress disorder, poor physical health and substance use behaviors in a national trauma-exposed sample. Psychiatry research. 2011;188(3):390-395.
  3. Muka T, Oliver-Williams C, Kunutsor S, et al. Association of Age at Onset of Menopause and Time Since Onset of Menopause With Cardiovascular Outcomes, Intermediate Vascular Traits, and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Cardiol. 2016;1(7):767–776. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2016.24153.
  4. Sowden GL, Huffman JC. The impact of mental illness on cardiac outcomes: a review for the cardiologist. International journal of cardiology. 2009;132(1):30-37.
Page last reviewed: August 20, 2020