Heart Disease in Women

Women's Heart HealthDid you know that heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women in the United States — ahead of cancer?

Heart disease is responsible for one in five female deaths each year. And about 1 in 16 women age 20 and older have coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease in the United States.

Shockingly, only 56 percent of women recognize heart disease as their greatest health threat.

These jarring statistics should make women sit up and pay attention.

The good news is, the American Heart Association says most cardiac events can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes.

RWJBarnabas Health’s Women’s Heart Centers offer our physicians’ unparalleled level of expertise and a full range of educational, diagnostic, treatment and support services to help women maintain their heart health.

Our cardiologists can help you:

  • Understand the unique risks women face
  • Recognize the signs of heart disease
  • Adopt preventive measures that can lead to a healthier heart and a better quality of life

By adopting healthier habits, such as exercising regularly, eating mindfully, and managing your blood pressure, you can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease.

Talk with a cardiovascular specialist about your personal risk profile. Request an appointment today.

Heart Disease in Women vs. Men

Heart disease is a term that refers to several types of heart conditions, including coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, heart failure, heart attacks and more. Women and men both get heart disease, which affects blood flow and the absorption of oxygen in the body. Both women and men are at risk due to common factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking and drinking. But there are unique risk factors that cause women to experience heart disease differently from men, including:

  • Hormonal changes. Before menopause, the hormone estrogen protects women against heart disease. After menopause, estrogen production goes down. Women who go through early menopause are more likely to develop heart disease than women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause. This is true especially if they have had a hysterectomy. Oral contraceptives and hormone therapy can also raise risk.
  • Physical differences in heart and blood vessels. The size and structure of a woman’s heart is different from a man’s. Coronary microvascular disease — a disease in the smaller arteries of the heart that is more common in women — is hard to diagnose, which can cause delays in treatment.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnancy raises blood volume and can raise blood pressure. Complications of pregnancy can also raise a woman’s risk.
  • Stress and depression. Women are more likely to experience stress and depression, which can affect the heart adversely.
  • Missing the warning signs. Some symptoms of heart disease in women are subtle, less well known, and can be attributed to other diseases. Heart disease can be “silent” in women because women may either not be aware of the warning signs, or may ignore them until their heart condition becomes serious.

Risk Factors

Factors that put women at high risk for heart disease include modifiable and non-modifiable factors. Some factors, like family history, cannot be controlled. But lifestyle choices play a significant role in higher heart disease risk in women.

Factors affecting women’s heart health include:

Women’s long-term cardiovascular health can be greatly improved when modifiable conditions and risks are identified and addressed.

Physical and mental and behavioral health management can make a big difference in your personal level of risk.

Pregnancy and Heart Disease

Pregnancy places a unique set of physiological demands on a woman's body. The cardiovascular system undergoes significant changes to accommodate the growing needs of a developing fetus. Blood volume increases, heart rate rises, and the heart has to work harder to meet the demands of pregnancy.

For women with pre-existing heart conditions, these changes can potentially aggravate underlying heart issues. Also, certain heart conditions may lead to an increased risk of complications during pregnancy, making proactive planning and specialized care essential. If you have a history of heart disease, it is crucial to engage in open discussions with a health care professional well before conceiving.

Learn more about pregnancy and heart disease, from causes and symptoms to diagnosis and treatment, or make an appointment to talk to a cardiovascular specialist.

Menopause and Heart Disease

Factors around the time of menopause can increase the risk for heart disease. Smoking or an unhealthy diet early in life can begin to take its toll. A decline in the natural hormone estrogen may also increase heart disease risk as it is believed that the hormone helps to keep blood vessels flexible. Women should discuss heart health with their gynecologist and/or primary care physician at all stages of life.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

While chest pain and upper body pressure or pain are common symptoms in men and women, other symptoms like lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting are likely in women as well. These could be ignored by women as signs of a heart attack.

Extreme fatigue is a common warning sign of an approaching heart attack in women.

Some women attribute heart attack symptoms to conditions like the flu or acid reflux.

So, when should you call 911?

If you experience any of the warning signs of a heart attack listed below, get to a hospital right away:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat.
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Palpitations

Heart Disease Prevention

There are lifestyle changes women can make to improve their heart health and prevent heart disease. Our cardiology team can help you create a personalized plan after assessing your condition and risk factors. We may recommend one or more of the following actions:

  • Schedule your annual physical exam. If you’re feeling well, it’s often easy to overlook the importance of visiting a doctor regularly. But your primary care doctor will do an overall health check that can detect areas of concern related to heart health. Identifying issues early can save you heartache later on.
  • Manage your weight. Rather than losing weight, you should focus on managing weight. It’s true that obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, but ideal weight levels differ from person to person based on body type and medical history. Ask a doctor what your ideal weight goals would be for a healthier heart.
  • Exercise. Physical activity is great for your health overall. Most cardiologists recommend a minimum 30 minutes of moderate physical activity four to five days a week. If you don’t have time for a full 30 minutes, separating it into to 10- or 15-minute bursts can also work.
  • Lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Cutting out cholesterol and fats goes a long way in keeping your heart and arteries healthy. Try to reduce consumption of dairy products and red meats. You may also want to start checking sodium levels on nutrition labels. High sodium intake increases blood pressure. The American heart Association recommends no more than 2.300 milligrams of sodium per day.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Cholesterol is not all bad. LDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) can help reduce your risk of heart disease. High fiber foods such as whole-grain bread are full of LDL cholesterol. Foods high in omega-3s, such as salmon, are another good choice. Three cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day are also recommended to lower blood pressure.
  • Quit smoking. The dangers of smoking are common knowledge these days. In addition to lung disease, smoking can also raise your blood pressure and shrink the coronary arteries. Smoking can also make the lining of blood vessels stickier, making it easier for blood clots to form. If you have numerous heart disease risk factors, you should seriously consider joining a smoking cessation program. Contact our Quit Center for help and support.

Requesting an Appointment

Ready to take control of your heart health? Schedule an appointment with one of our cardiovascular specialists today. Prior to scheduling, you may need a referral from your primary care or OB/GYN. In some cases, you may make a self-referral. For a self-referral, please contact us or make an appointment online.

Request an Appointment

Heart Conditions We Treat

Our program treats women with a variety of cardiac conditions. These conditions include:

Procedures Offered

Your doctor will decide the specific procedure based on several factors, including the type of heart condition you have and how severe it is; your age, medical history and lifestyle; and results of tests performed during your initial evaluation. Consult with your cardiologist for more information.

Meet the Team

Meet the Team Instrumental to our program’s success is our passionate, experienced, and integrated multidisciplinary team comprised of cardiovascular specialists skilled in all aspects of health care. To learn more about our team members, please visit our Heart Disease in Women Team page.

Meet Our Team

Access to the Latest Medical and Clinical Research

RWJBarnabas Health's Heart, Vascular and Thoracic team provides patients with access to the latest technology and medical advancements via participation in some of the most renowned clinical studies offered. Clinical studies help bridge research and patient care by evaluating therapies, drugs and diagnostic tools to drive discoveries into clinical practice. To learn more about our clinical trials, please visit our Clinical Trials page.

Women and Hearth Health Brochure

Download our brochure

At RWJBarnabas Health, we are committed to promoting women's heart health and providing the highest level of care. By understanding the unique risks, recognizing the signs, adopting preventive measures and seeking timely medical attention, you can take charge of your heart health.

Taking care of your heart is taking care of yourself. Let us connect you with a cardiovascular specialist in New Jersey near you.

Get Your heart Checked