Heart disease in women: Facts & statistics

According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. For some people, this may come as a surprise as heart disease particularly heart attacks have traditionally been associated with men. Heart attacks in women are not uncommon but they may ignore the signs which are sometimes different from those that occur in men. This is one of the reasons why heart disease causes increased mortality in women. Since women do not recognize the signs of a heart attack for what they are, they are less likely to seek emergency medical care and the condition often goes unrecognized and undiagnosed. To avoid this, women must know and understand the significant symptoms that may help them identify the occurrence of a heart attack.

Recognizing the signs

Like men, women also suffer chest pain, but there are other signs that are not typically thought of in terms of the heart. These symptoms include shortness of breath; discomfort in one’s neck, abdomen, shoulder or upper back; nausea, dizziness or light-headedness; and body malaise. When these symptoms are not being assessed and managed, emergency care should be sought.

Knowing the risk factors

Women should also recognize what the risk factors are. This goes a long way in preventing heart disease. Common risk factors for women include smoking, stress, and a condition known as Metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that increases the risk of developing heart problems and other serious health problems. These conditions include abdominal obesity, increased levels of triglycerides in the blood, low levels of HDL, hyperglycemia, and hypertension.

  • Factors that increase your risk for heart disease: Several heart disease risk factors for women are listed on this page on the Go Red For Women website.

Steps for prevention

Preventing heart disease in women involves taking the right steps depending on individual circumstances. For example, maintaining healthy blood pressure, reducing high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, decreasing one’s weight from unhealthy levels, and discontinuing smoking. Removing saturated fat and cholesterol from the diet and adding omega-3 fatty acids, often found in fish, is also important. Women with diabetes can reduce their risk of a heart attack by keeping their blood sugar within normal levels. At least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and physical activity per day is recommended for women who are aiming for a healthy heart. Medical solutions for women with established risk factors for heart disease may include regular use of aspirin, lipid-lowering agents, and a blood thinner called warfarin for those who are at increased risk of blood clot development.

Further resources

For more information on women and heart disease, check the following resources:

  • Women’s cardiovascular health: Check this link to find articles on topics such as coronary microvascular disease in women, the gender gap in cardiovascular disease, and myths about women and heart disease.
  • Facts about heart disease in women: This website discusses heart disease as the leading cause of death in women. It presents a number of facts broken into categories.
  • Heart disease: This link opens up the heart disease section on Medline plus website.
  • Goredforwomen.org: This is an organization that helps, supports, and educates women who have been diagnosed with or are at risk of heart disease and their families.
  • Your guide to living well with heart disease: This article about heart disease and how to cope with it.
  • Heart disease and black women: Black women are particularly at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This article sheds more light on this subject.
  • Formulating research questions: Heart disease in women differs from men in terms of pathophysiology, symptoms, and diagnostic modalities. Gendered Innovations focus on research questions that address these issues.

See also our page on heart abnormalities for further discussion of abnormalities.

This page was written by on Feb 16, 2016.
This page was last reviewed and updated by on Jun 22, 2020.