Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Though it's often thought of as a problem for men, it affects just as many women. However, the symptoms aren't always the same for men and women, so it's important to know those differences and be aware of when a woman should seek help.
Common Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
Here are some of the common symptoms of heart attack in women:
- Pain in either or both arms
- Pain or discomfort in the jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdomen
- Easily becoming winded
- Nausea or vomiting
Chest pain is usually a milder symptom of heart attack in women than it is in men, and women are also more likely to experience a heart attack while resting or sleeping than men are.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Women
Not only are there different heart attack symptoms in women and men, but there can also be additional risk factors for developing heart disease. Here are some of the factors that are more closely linked to heart conditions in women than in men.
- Decreased estrogen during and after menopause can increase a woman's heart disease risk.
- Diabetes, smoking, and stress all increase the risk of heart disease in women more than in men.
- Pregnancy-related complications can increase a woman's risk of heart disease.
- Being inactive or sitting too much greatly increases a woman's heart disease risk, more than it does for men.
These are in addition to general risk factors that increase the risk of heart disease for both men and women, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, smoking, and being sedentary.
How Women Can Decrease Their Risk of Heart Disease
Here are some ways that women can decrease their risk of developing heart disease. Remember to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise, diet, or supplement regimen.
- Quit smoking.
- Be sure to get regular moderate exercise. Pick something fun that you will stick to.
- Ask your doctor what a healthy weight is for you and work to achieve and maintain it. The two most important things to consider when looking at your weight are BMI and waist circumference. The reason weight circumference is important is because it's a good way to measure belly fat, which has been linked to increasing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes (Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk, n.d.). Women should strive for a waist circumference lower than 35 inches and men should be under 40 inches. A measurement should be taken around your body just above your hipbones, after you have exhaled. For BMI, use a calculator to determine what weight you will need to be to get to at least 25.
- Decrease or eliminate sugar and processed foods in your diet. As much as possible, stick to whole foods, which are packed with heart-healthy nutrients.
Here are some small but powerful actions you can do each day to help decrease your risk of heart disease, whether you are a man or a woman:
- Add one extra, brightly colored fruit or vegetable to whatever you are already eating every day. Ideally, you should be getting four or five daily servings of these, but adding one to whatever you're currently doing is a great way to inch that number up. Here are some particularly good fruits and vegetables for heart health:
- Have one handful of nuts per day. Not only are nuts heart healthy, but their crunchiness can help you fight cravings for things like chips and fries. Some nuts that are particularly known for their ability to decrease heart disease risks are almonds, pistachios, peanuts, and walnuts.
- Switch to black coffee, tea, and water. You can cut out a tremendous amount of fat, calories, and sugar by avoiding other drinks and drinking these plain. Green tea, matcha in particular, is a great choice because it's packed with antioxidants. If you have a lot of coffee daily, consider swapping some of it out for tea. It has its own heart healthy antioxidants and also theanine, which can help reduce stress.
- Replace red meat with fish or a vegan meal at least once a week. Fish is a heart-healthy food and so are beans, legumes, tempeh, tofu, and vegetables. By replacing red meat with them, you can decrease your heart disease risks. Choose fresh meat and avoid processed, which contains nitrates and other unhealthy ingredients. When you do eat red meat, try to stick to grass-feed, organic choices, which may be higher in antioxidants like vitamin E and lower in fat.
- drizzling on salads. Olive oil is great for salads or drizzling on veggies. Stay away from trans fat, or partially hydrogenated oils, which can increase the bad cholesterol, LDL. These are found in many processed foods, so it's important to read labels and avoid them.
- Cut out some of the salt in your diet. If you find yourself reaching for salt often, consider increasing the fresh herbs and spices you use while cooking. Add more garlic, a little cayenne, or some lemon juice. Experiment to find combinations that you like and that can decrease your salt intake while adding all of the health benefits of the herbs and spices. You can also try decreasing your salt by meditation or mixing it with milk thistle, which has heart health benefits.
- Have oatmeal at least once a week. Steel cut oats, oat groats, and oat bran are all great choices because they aren't highly processed. Oatmeal is high in beta glucan, a soluble fiber that's particularly good at improving cholesterol levels.
- Avoid binge drinking. While some alcohol may have heart health benefits, binge drinking can increase the risk of heart disease by increasing the risk of arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms.
Mental Stress, Depression, and Heart Disease in Women
It is more likely that mental stress, tension, and depression will result in heart disease and heart attack in women than in men. If you are suffering from depression, be sure to talk to your doctor about what can be done to help you. In addition, developing and sticking to a stress reduction strategy is a great idea as part of an overall plan for your heart health. Here are some things to do every day to help manage stress:
- Start the morning with a 10-minute meditation or yoga sequence. This can set you up for a less stressed day.
- Take a walk every day if your doctor gives you the OK. Do it outside if possible. Sunshine and exercise are powerful stress relievers. If you can't fit one long walk into your schedule, try for four or more 10-minute walks per day.
- Practice gratitude. Whenever it fits best into your day, stop and make a mental or written list of things you're thankful for. This is a powerful way to decrease your stress, by focusing on what you have instead of what is causing you anxiety.
- Develop positive affirmations for any difficult situations you're facing. This can help you feel in control instead of at the mercy of your circumstances, which causes stress.
- Take time out to breathe. It might sound silly, but many of us simply don't take time to breathe. When we do, our stress levels can dramatically decrease. Deep breathing can also decrease blood pressure.
- Be mindful at meal and snack times. Eating mindfully can not only decrease your stress, but it can also help keep you from overeating and allow you to enjoy your food much more.
In addition to these daily stress-relieving activities, make time for any specific things that help you stay relaxed. Connect with friends and family routinely, and make time for hobbies that help you feel grounded and peaceful.
- Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
- Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors. (2016, June 14). Retrieved from mayoclinic.org.