Heart Disease Is Different for Women

06/17/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016
Jonathan Kitchen via Getty Images

Women account for three times as many office visits to doctors compared to men, yet they are not treated as carefully as men by many physicians. This is most evident when it comes to screening for heart disease. Heart disease has traditionally been considered a disease that most commonly affects men. Most people also assume that cancer, not heart disease, is the number one killer of women in the United States. Both of these assumptions are no longer true and can be dangerous if believed.

In actuality, more than one-third of all American women are now living with some form of heart disease, and over 40 percent of all deaths among women in the U.S. are caused by heart disease (approximately 400,000 deaths each year), with heart disease killing approximately 10 times as many women each year as breast cancer.

Women who suffer a heart attack also have lower survival rates compared to men (38 percent to 25 percent). Female heart attack survivors are also more than twice as likely to be disabled due to heart failure within six years compared to men (46 percent to 22 percent), and two to three times as many women as men die after bypass surgery. Making matters worse, most of the research conducted on heart disease today is focused on men, with women comprising less than 35 percent of all participants in medical studies related to heart disease.

Compounding matters is the fact that women often do not experience symptoms of heart disease in the same way that men do, and therefore are more likely to not recognize what the symptoms mean, or to ignore them altogether. For example, while chest pain is the most common symptom of a pending heart attack, women are far more likely than men to not experience chest pain before a heart attack strikes. Women are also less apt to experience other common warning signs of heart disease, such as pain in the left arm and shortness of breath.

Instead of experiencing the most common male warning signs of heart disease, women are more likely to experience what are known as "atypical warning signs." Such symptoms include pain in the back, neck or jaw; nausea; vomiting; indigestion; weakness such as that associated with the flu; unexplained fatigue; dizziness or lightheadedness; and sleep disturbances. Research has shown that 95 percent of women who suffered heart attacks first experienced one or more of these atypical symptoms rather than common warning signs. In the majority of cases, they did not recognize the symptoms for what they were. Had they done so, the majority of them might have avoided heart attacks by receiving medical attention in time.

Physicians, too, can fail to detect heart disease in women. One reason this is so is because women aren't as likely to have fatty plaque buildup in their arteries compared to men. This is especially true among younger women. In addition, women typically develop heart disease an average of 10 to 15 years later than men do. Researchers attribute this delay to two factors: menstruation, which helps to thin blood, making it easier for the heart to pump it; and the rich supply of female hormones that are produced prior to menopause, which have heart-protecting properties. Once menopause sets in, however, women who previously exhibited no signs of heart disease might quickly develop them, but because of their health history their doctors might fail to screen for them.

All of the above facts make it essential that women become proactive when it comes to heart disease. This means knowing the different and atypical warning signs of heart disease that are most commonly affect women, and making sure to request a thorough screening for heart disease from their doctors, especially once they enter into menopause.