Women’s hearts are different from men’s – so are their risks, symptoms and outcomes. Too few of us are aware of these dangers.
#getHeartChecked. Use our guides to remind you of the numbers you need to know and questions to ask your doctor about women’s heart disease. Carry them with you so you know the red flag symptoms of an immediate female heart attack – and can act if you need to.
- Print and carry Guide: FHHS-Guide | WALLET-SurvivalGuide
- Save to your Phone Guide: How to Reduce Your Risk | Red Flag Symptoms
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Women's hearts are different
Women’s hearts are different. We generally have smaller hearts and higher heart rates than men. Female hormones make our arteries smaller, which in turn makes them more prone to blood clots or blockages, and more difficult to repair.
Hear from Dr. Paula Johnson, Executive Director of the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Professor at Harvard Medical School. She conceived and developed one of the first facilities in the country focused on heart disease in women.
Women's Risks are different
One in three women will be affected by heart disease, and the risk can begin by the age of 20.
62% of women have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Most women in mid-life have more. Having 2 factors quadruples your risk of heart disease, and having 3 increases your your chances by 10 fold.
Approximately, 95% of women who have a heart attack have only 1 risk factor. Almost everyone with heart disease will experience heart failure – half die within 5 years and most die within 10.
Your risk of developing heart disease is increased by these factors:
- General Risk Factors – include age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, family history and ethnicity.
- Lifestyle Factors – include smoking, excess weight and physical inactivity.
- Psychological Factors – include stress, depression and anxiety disorders.
- Sex-Specific Factors – include pregnancy, menopause and other hormone-related conditions.
Women living with diabetes or menopause are at an even greater risk, as our women from certain ethnic groups. First Nations members are 1.5-2x more likely to develop heart disease; and South Asian Canadians are more likely to die from a heart attack earlier than other Canadians. Women with low levels of education and income also face a higher level of risk of heart disease, likely because they experience barriers to following healthy behaviours that would prevent the disease.
While most women develop heart disease later in life, younger women are also at risk. Pre-menopausal women who smoke, have diabetes and/or who use oral contraceptives have an increased chance of developing heart disease.
- Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre – Risk Factors.
- Meet the New Faces of Heart Disease – 3 Women Survivors Under 30 share their stories.
Women's Heart Attack Symptoms are different
You are not alone. A majority of women are unaware of the red flag signs that can save their lives.
What does a heart attack look like? How about a retired woman with terrible indigestion? Or, a 30 year old new mom, overtired who just can’t sleep?
Recent research has identified that women’s symptoms are different from men’s. While men tend to experience chest-clutching “Hollywood heart attacks”, women tend to have more “silent attacks”.
71% of women experience red flag, early warning signs of a heart attack with a sudden onset of weakness – often with no chest pain at all. They often describe their symptoms as a less serious condition like the flu or indigestion, experiencing aches and pains, extreme fatigue or a change in energy level that lasts more than a few days, and trouble falling asleep or waking up more. Women also report feeling more anxious, nervous or more apprehensive for no apparent reason. These red flag warning signs may appear a month or even a year in advance.
Due to the subtlety of their symptoms, women are less likely to believe they are having a heart attack and seek help. They are more likely to ignore their symptoms or blame them on other stresses in their lives, medication, other health problems or normal aging. Up to 54% of female heart attacks still go unrecognized today.
Know the signs and be prepared to help yourself and the women you love.
Women's Treatment & Outcomes are different
Heart disease is no longer a ‘man’s disease’. Screening, diagnosis and treatment must reflect this.
Being able to recognize the signs of a heart attack could save your life. Every minute counts; the faster you receive treatment, the more likely you are to survive and make a full recovery. Yet for decades, heart disease research focused almost exclusively on men, and this shaped guidelines for screening, diagnosis and treatment. The lack of targeted women’s research and awareness masked women’s unique symptoms and the prevalence of the disease. Women’s symptoms were overlooked, misdiagnosed and mistreated by medical professionals; and dismissed, ignored or unnoticed by women.
Recent research has identified that women’s heart attack symptoms and experiences are different, but what’s behind these differences is only beginning to surface and many questions still need to be answered. Why do pregnancy complications increase the risk of developing heart disease in mother and child? Why do women have more heart attacks after menopause? Why do women have more repeat heart attacks than men? Why do they experience significantly worse physical limitations and reduced quality of life than men?
We must make women’s heart disease research and education a priority. Here’s a few reasons why.
- While 71% of women experience early women’s red flag heart attack symptoms, often with no chest pain at all – medical professionals are challenged to respond, acting with insufficient guidelines.
- Men’s plaque distributes in clumps whereas women’s distributes more evenly throughout artery walls. This results in women’s angiographic studies being misinterpreted as “normal”.
- Women wait longer than men to go to an emergency room when having a heart attack and physicians are slower to recognize the presence of heart attacks in women because “characteristic” patterns of chest pain and EKG changes are less frequently present.
- After heart attack, women are less likely than men to receive beta blockers, ACE inhibitors and aspirin – therapies known to improve survival. This contributes to a higher rate of complications after heart attacks in women, even after adjusting for age.
- More women than men will die within one year of a first recognized heart attack.
- Women are twice as likely as men to die within the first few weeks after suffering a heart attack.
- 46% of women and 22% of men heart attack survivors will be disabled with heart failure within six years
- Women are two to three times as likely to die following heart bypass surgery. Younger aged women between the ages of 40-59 are up to 4 times more likely to die from heart bypass surgery than men the same age.
- Studies show women who are eligible candidates to receive life-saving clot-buster drugs are far less likely than men to receive them.
- Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease and the gap between men and women’s survival continues to widen.
- Women receive fewer heart disease procedures than men, however, more is not necessarily better in this setting and the best course of treatment for a woman with heart disease has yet to be established.
- Women’s hearts respond better than men’s to healthy lifestyle changes, yet less money is dedicated to prevention.
- Women comprise only 24% of participants in all heart-related studies.
* Source: Women’s Heart Foundation