How Heart Disease Presents in Women

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According to the American Heart Association (AHA), one out of every three women dies of heart disease and stroke. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, but a significant percentage of women still fail to recognize this. Cardiovascular disease kills more women every year than all forms of cancer combined. Further, obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

How Is Heart Disease Different for Women?

Like men, women are likely to have chest discomfort as their most common presenting symptom of a heart attack or coronary heart disease. But women are more likely than men to have other, vague symptoms that may be hard to recognize as being associated with heart disease.

These other symptoms can include shortness of breath, intense fatigue, nausea, jaw pain and pain in the upper back.

Women also have to contend with the possible complications of any kind of heart disease during pregnancy. This may include, for example, high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia or eclampsia) or congenital heart disease in the mother that must be monitored and carefully managed throughout the pregnancy.

Women Are More Likely to Die from Cardiovascular Disease

Since 1984, the number of women dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD)—which includes heart disease and stroke—has exceeded the number of men dying from CVD. It is estimated that approximately 6.6 million females alive today in the United States have coronary heart disease. Of these, 2.6 million have had a heart attack.

For those who have a heart attack, the statistics are not good. Twenty-six percent of women age 45 and older who have their first recognized heart attack die within a year, compared with 19% of men.

Partly because women have heart attacks at older ages than men do (approximately 10 years later), they are more likely to die from them within a few weeks. And strikingly, 64% of women who died suddenly from coronary heart disease had no previous identifiable symptoms. This makes prevention all the more important.

Women Are More Likely to Have a Stroke

Remember that stroke is usually considered to be a form of cardiovascular disease. An often-overlooked fact is that women are more likely than men to have and to die from a stroke, which elevates the overall unfavorable cardiovascular disease statistics for women.

According to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, each year approximately 55,000 more women than men have a stroke. As noted above, this is because women have a greater average life expectancy than men do, and stroke occurs most often in the oldest age ranges.

Although emergency treatments for stroke are rapidly improving, a stroke can still be a truly devastating event and is to be avoided if at all possible. That's where prevention comes into play.


The silver lining to these statistics is the AHA’s estimation that as much as 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable.

Simple steps that any woman—or man—can take to lower the risk for cardiovascular disease include:

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Article Sources
  • American Heart Assocaition. Statistical fact sheet: women and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Morell K. Hard-to-recognize heart attack symptoms.