Reducing Your Risk for Heart Disease & Heart Attack

Did you know...

  • Heart disease is the number-one health risk faced by women?
  • In women, heart disease symptoms can be difficult to diagnose?
  • Women may experience a dangerous delay in heart attack care?

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that 85 percent of American women don't know that their number one health risk is heart disease.

It may be because you think of cardiovascular disease as a men's issue. But while men do have a higher risk than women, as women approach menopause—when lower levels of estrogen cause LDL ("bad") cholesterol to rise and HDL ("good") cholesterol to fall—their risk rises, and by age 65, it's often the same as a man's.

The good news is the more you educate yourself about the unique risk factors women face and the symptoms they exhibit that men may not, the more you can take control.

Know Your Heart Disease Risk

Eighty percent of women ages 40 to 60 have at least one risk factor for heart disease—including diabetes, high blood pressure, low HDL, being overweight or obese, smoking, inactivity and family history—according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. But there’s often a gender gap in how those risk factors must be interpreted.

"The markers of risk can be very different for a woman," says Richard A. Stein, M.D., professor of cardiology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. He cites levels of HDL—the cholesterol that helps prevent arterial plaque from building up—as an example. "For a man, an HDL reading of 40 mg/dL or above is good; for a woman, it needs to be 50 or, ideally, over 60."

Another example: Women with diabetes are at a greater risk—up to 5 times higher—of developing heart disease than men who have it. (If you have diabetes, controlling blood glucose with medication can help manage symptoms of less severe heart disease.)

Risk factors like high blood pressure (which is a stronger risk factor in women than in men), low HDL and obesity can often be addressed through nutrition and lifestyle changes—limiting your daily sodium to no more than 2,300mg, quitting smoking and cutting back on saturated fats in your diet, for instance, pay off quickly. But family history is a risk factor you're stuck with. And, surprisingly, there's a gender gap there, too: If your father or brother had a heart attack before the age of 55, that's considered an "early" heart attack and suggests you may be at risk; if your mother or sister had one, some practitioners will consider it "early" if she was under 65.

Dr. Stein warns that smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke hold special heart risks for women. Secondhand smoke appears to disproportionately affect women. (Breathing in the invisible particles in cigarette smoke increases blood’s "stickiness" and likelihood to clot after only 30 minutes of exposure.)

And women who smoke and take oral contraceptives may be several times more likely to suffer a heart attack. (The pill increases the risk of blood clots, especially in women over 35.)

According to the AHA, heart attacks in women may have different causes and symptoms, and may be deadlier, than heart attacks in men. They are less likely to need a stent to open a blocked artery, but they often do suffer blood vessel damage that can reduce blood flow and cause a heart attack.

In women, chest pain and discomfort are more likely to also experience shortness of breath, back pain, jaw pain, nausea, and vomiting during a heart attack. The AHA also reports that guideline-recommended medications and cardiac rehabilitation are underused in women.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 24 Jan 2011

Last Modified: 26 Jan 2016