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California Department of public health

Women's Heart Health

What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a catch-all phrase for a variety of conditions that affect the heart's structure and function. Coronary heart disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to a buildup of plaque on their inner walls. Plaque is the accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As plaque continues to build in the arteries, blood flow to the heart is reduced.

Heart disease can lead to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when an artery becomes totally blocked with plaque, preventing vital oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. That can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.

Know the Signs, and Act Immediately

A woman suffers a heart attack every 90 seconds in the United States. If you think you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately. By acting quickly, treatment can prevent permanent damage to your heart muscle and perhaps save your life. Treatment works best if given within one hour of when symptoms begin.

Common heart attack symptoms in women are:Heart

  • Unusually heavy pressure on the chest
  • Sharp upper body pain in the neck, back, and jaw
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats (not hot flashes from menopause)
  • Unusual or unexplained fatigue (tiredness or exhaustion)
  • Unfamiliar dizziness or light-headedness
  • Unexplained nausea (feeling sick to the stomach), or vomiting

Symptoms of heart disease may be different from person to person, even if they have the same type of ischemic heart disease. However, because many people have no symptoms, they do not know they have heart disease until they experience complications such as a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest.

Why are Women at Risk for Heart Disease

Coronary Heart Disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease and is the #1 killer of women in the United States. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States, and among Hispanic women, heart disease and cancer cause roughly the same number of deaths each year. For American Indian, Alaska Native, and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer. Women are also 15 percent more likely than men to die of a heart attack, and twice as likely to have a second heart attack in the six years following the first one.

Nine out of 10 women have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Risk factors include:

  • High blood pressureWomen
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • A family history of premature heart disease

Roughly 49%, or nearly 1 in 2 African American women over age 20, experience some type of heart disease, such as:

  • Clogged arteries in the heart, arms, or legs
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Angina (chest pain)

Other important risk factors for heart disease are:

  • Unhealthy lifestyle and diet
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
  • Age (55 or older for women)

Women who have gone through early menopause, either naturally or because they have had a hysterectomy, are also twice as likely to develop heart disease as women of the same age who have not yet gone through menopause.

Family history of early heart disease is another risk factor that can't be changed.

However, it is important to realize that women do have control over many other factors. There are steps you can take every day towards a more heart-healthy life. Plus, by being more heart-healthy, you also lower the risk of other diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Increasing Your Heart Health

Follow these simple steps to help lower your chance of heart disease and a heart attack:

  • Eating a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk Fruitsproducts. Choose foods low in saturated fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.
  • Controlling blood pressure through diet, exercise
  • Managing cholesterol
  • Stopping smoking
  • Limiting alcohol use
  • Becoming more physically active
  • Knowing family history

While daily use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks or a stroke can be helpful it is not always right for everyone. Ask your healthcare provider if you should use aspirin. If it's right for you, find out:

  • How much you should take.
  • How often, and how long you should take it.

Tell your healthcare provider about all of the medicines and supplements you take. The risk of bleeding may be higher if aspirin is used while also taking certain medicines, vitamins, or herbs.

Additional Resources:

Healthy Hearts California

Educational Materials (For Patients)

Educational Materials (For Professionals)

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