Understanding Women's Risk For Heart Attacks


For years, heart disease has been known as an “old man disease.” However, recent studies have shown that with rising trends in chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity, have caused the average age of a possible heart attack or heart disease diagnosis to drop – especially for women.

The longer you live with a chronic disease, the more likely you are to develop complications. For example, once you become diabetic, your risk of dying of heart disease in 20 years can be increased by 50 percent.

Heart Disease: Men vs. Women

Heart disease causes blood vessels in the heart to narrow or become blocked. Blocked vessels prevent blood from flowing to the heart – causing a heart attack.

For both men and women, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S. However, the way heart disease presents itself can be different. Women are more likely to have microvascular (small vessel) disease while men are more likely to have epicardial (large vessel) disease.

A heart attack can be caused by a blockage of any size, but it can be harder to monitor in small vessels. This can sometimes be problematic because your large vessels may look good after a heart catheterization procedure, but the real problem is in the small vessels. While we have stents and surgery to address large vessel blockages, there isn’t an effective management for small vessel blockages.

Your Risk Of Heart Disease

Especially for women, several different factors can contribute to your risk of heart disease – many that are out of your control. Talk to your doctor if you:

  • Have been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes
  • Have had gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy)
  • Have had pre-eclampsia, eclampsia or high blood pressure during pregnancy
  • Have a family history of stroke or heart disease

Decreasing Your Risk Of A Heart Attack

While some risk factors can’t be controlled, fortunately, there are steps that you can take to prevent a possible heart disease diagnosis in your future. Your best bet for reducing your risk? Long-term lifestyle changes and being proactive about your health. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Change your diet. Eating unhealthy foods packed with complex carbohydrates, artificial sugars and high levels of saturated or trans fats take a toll – not just on your heart, but your entire body. I always recommend a pescatarian or plant-based diet to my patients. There is good data showing the overall health benefits of reducing your animal protein intake.
  2. Be active. Getting your blood pumping helps to strengthen your heart muscles. By working out for about 20 minutes a day, you keep your heart performing at its best. Consider a cardio workout like Zumba or spin class. Something as simple as a brisk walk works too!
  3. Reduce your stress. Stress and anxiety play a big role in heart disease for women. Increased stress can cause chest pain and decrease blood flow to the heart. Try paying more attention to the stress you induce on your body. If you find yourself struggling with stress and anxiety, look for relaxation techniques that fit into your lifestyle – yoga, meditation, prayer or simple deep breathing methods.
  4. Start screenings early. At a certain age, it is recommended you monitor your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. While many people think that is something to worry about when you are older, the American Heart Association recommends you start cardiovascular screenings at age 20. As a preventive cardiologist, I believe it is never too early to start screening for heart disease. I would consider earlier screenings especially if you have a chronic inflammatory condition like lupus or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or a family history of premature heart disease.

Am I Having A Heart Attack?

A heart attack can present itself in different ways. Some people can identify the chest pain or shortness of breath associated with a heart attack right away. Still, others can suffer from silent heart attacks that occur with little or lesser-known symptoms like extreme fatigue or indigestion.

Not all patients have read textbooks on how a heart attack will present itself. Many rely on “Dr. Google” to give them a diagnosis, which can cause delays in care and mismanagement.

If you think you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, don’t take it lightly. It is better to have a doctor evaluate your symptoms than the alternative.

How healthy is your heart? Take our heart risk quiz today. For more information about how women can be proactive about heart health, visit henryford.com/womensheartcenter or call 313-876-4540.

Dr. Deirdre Mattina is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and at the Henry Ford Women’s Heart Center at Henry Ford Medical Center – Second Avenue. Read more of Dr. Mattina’s articles.

Categories: FeelWell