Guide to Heart Disease in Women

What women young and old should know about congestive heart failure and their cardiovascular health

Heart disease in women is a serious health concern. Although often thought of as a condition that primarily affects men, American women have a 1 in 5 chance of dying from heart disease. What’s more, symptoms of heart attacks in women are often harder to detect, thereby increasing the risk of death caused by misdiagnosis.

Wherever you live, understanding more about the different types of heart disease and their symptoms can help women of all ages reduce their heart attack risk through preventative care and get the life-saving treatments that they require.

How common is heart disease in women?

This map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows death rates from heart disease in women in the United States. The darker red indicates a higher death rate.


According to the CDC, heart disease was the leading cause of death for women in the United States in 2017, killing 299,578 women. Despite this fact and increasing awareness campaigns, only about half (56 percent) of women recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer.

How do women's heart attack symptoms differ?

When many people think of a heart attack, the first thing that comes to mind is someone complaining of chest pain and fainting. However, women often have symptoms that are more likely to be mistaken for something different, like the flu or heartburn.

Some of the symptoms that are more likely to occur in women include:

  • Pain or pressure in the lower part of the chest or abdomen

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Upper back pressure

Many women have heart disease that is mostly symptom-free and will not notice that they have a problem until something more serious, like a heart attack, occurs.

What are common types of heart disease?

Because heart attacks and strokes kill more women each year than the other conditions commonly associated with women such as breast cancer, it’s helpful to know about the different types of heart disease. There are various types of heart disease, and it’s important to know the causes, symptoms and treatments of each.

Some of the most common types of heart disease that women may be diagnosed with include:

  • Coronary artery disease — A buildup of plaque in the arteries that can cause the vessels to narrow and restrict flow to the heart.

  • Heart failure or congestive heart failure — A condition where the heart doesn’t pump enough blood to the heart.
  • Arrhythmias — Irregular heartbeats that include atrial fibrillation, which may increase blood clots and the risk of stroke.

  • Heart valve disease — Valves that function inefficiently and affect blood flow, often caused by a congenital defect, infection or old age.

What causes heart disease?

Many risk factors can cause heart disease, including obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Some of the other causes and risk factors that make women have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease include:

  • Diabetes increases the risk of a "silent" heart attack because of possible nerve damage impacting sensations

  • Inflammatory diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis

  • Lifestyle choices such as inactivity or smoking that affect blood vessels and heart function

What are some symptoms of heart disease in women?

Although chest pain is one of the most common heart disease symptoms, not everyone experiences chest pain. Coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias and heart valve disease often have different signs and symptoms in women.

Despite coronary artery disease often being undetected before a heart attack, women can experience chest pain as well as:

  • Jaw, throat, neck, back or abdominal pain

  • Numbness, pain or weakness in the arms or legs

  • Shortness of breath
  • Extreme fatigue

  • Nausea

In some women, heart failure has no symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms do appear, they can include fatigue, foot and ankle swelling, breathlessness, dizziness or fainting and irregular heartbeats.

Arrhythmias may be indicated either by a racing or slow heartbeat, fainting or dizziness. Shortness of breath, chest pain and a fluttering sensation are possible symptoms as well.

Heart valve disease may have different symptoms depending on which valve is affected. However, general symptoms include chest pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.

Can heart disease be treated?

The treatment for heart disease depends on the specific type of cardiovascular issue and how advanced the condition is when it’s diagnosed. Many cases of heart disease are successfully treated with medications, like ACE Inhibitors and beta-blockers.

Preventive lifestyle changes may also help keep heart disease symptoms managed. Quitting smoking, getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet can help reduce a woman’s chance of suffering from heart disease.

In rare cases, surgical and other medical interventions may be necessary such as:

  • Angioplasty and stents — a procedure that opens a blocked artery.

  • Heart bypass surgery — a more invasive way of opening blocked arteries.
  • Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators or pacemakers — implanted devices that help correct heart rhythm issues.

  • Valve replacement or repair — surgical correction for a defective heart valve.

If you think you may have had a heart attack, you should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

If you are at risk for heart disease or want to talk to a doctor about some simple preventative steps you can take now to boost your cardiovascular health, schedule an appointment at All About Women in Gainesville or Lake City, Florida.