Heart disease: The ‘unusual’ symptom that women experience differently to men

Heart disease: Doctor explains how to reduce risk

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Heart disease is a broad term that holds different heart and blood vessel conditions, such as coronary artery disease, vascular disease, high blood pressure, and heart failure. The most common cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis, the build-up of cholesterol and fatty deposits on the inner walls of the arteries that restricts blood flow to the heart.

Over time, atherosclerosis restricts blood flow to the heart.

As blood flow becomes more restricted, the heart lacks oxygen and nutrient-rich blood.

This condition is called ischemia – and the heart becomes less effective. Ischemia causes some of the symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, or angina.

Generally, women have symptoms of heart disease about 10 years later than men.

For men, chest pain is a common symptom. In women, symptoms of a heart attack are more subtle and can include:

  • Pain or aching in the chest and upper arms or back
  • Unusually fast heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue.

Heart disease in women may not be as obvious as a heart attack. It may present with these symptoms:

  • Angina, usually felt in the chest, but also in the left shoulder, arms, neck, back, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations, or irregular heartbeats
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Extreme weakness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Sudden sweating or a cold, clammy feeling.

According to the NHS, any of these symptoms should be evaluated by your GP, especially if they are new, sudden, or worsening.

There are also differences in risk factors for women to look out for that can increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease that include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes (high blood sugar levels)
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • Tobacco use
  • Being overweight
  • Family history of heart disease, especially at an early age
  • Being 55 years old or older.

One large difference between men and women heart disease is the menopause. As a woman, if you have been without a menstrual period for at least 12 months, the chances of experiencing heart disease is greater, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Preventing heart disease in women.

Eating a nutrient-rich diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol combined with an active lifestyle is important in managing heart disease

For some women, there may be additional considerations, such as:

Medications: Uncontrolled high blood pressure and diabetes raise the risk of heart disease. If diet and exercise are not enough to manage these conditions, medications may be needed.

Tobacco cessation: Tobacco products increase heart disease risk. Several options are available to successfully help you become tobacco free.

Alcohol intake: Drinking too much alcohol increases your heart disease risk. Limiting alcohol intake to one drink a day or less can reduce your risk of having heart disease.

Stress: Stress can contribute to the development of heart disease. Finding ways to manage stress in a healthy way can reduce your cardiovascular disease risk.

Certain risk factors, such as family history or pre-existing heart conditions, cannot be changed. However, some can be modified to reduce the risk of heart disease, including:

  • Increasing physical activity
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Reducing stress
  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Managing chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

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