Heart Disease in Women: Q & A
Susan Butler, RN, MSN, is Women's Heart Health Coordinator at WFBMC
Heart disease is thought of as a “man’s disease” but several women in my family have heart problems. Do women and men with heart disease have the same symptoms?
Heart disease is a catch phrase for heart attacks, high blood pressure, peripheral vascular disease, stroke, chest pain, or heart failure. It strikes one out of five women in the United States and is the number one cause of death.
Fortunately, public awareness of heart disease in women is improving as researchers unravel the differences in symptoms, treatment, and survival of women compared to men. Women’s physical differences include the smaller size of the coronary arteries and veins and the protective effect of some female hormones. Unfortunately, in women, heart symptoms are often attributed to causes other than the cardiovascular system and it is important to discuss this with your primary care physician.
For example, women may notice they are more fatigued than usual or experience weakness, especially with exertion. Women are used to multitasking and tend to ignore chronic fatigue. However, weakness is uncommon and they feel like they can’t catch their breath. Occasionally, women will experience the same symptoms men describe as “crushing chest pain” or pressure that moves to the neck, jaw, or left arm, along with pale, damp skin, nausea, or vomiting.
Unfortunately, some women often describe symptoms attributed to “heartburn” or acid reflux symptoms with awareness of vague discomfort in the back, arms, or shoulders. They may also have nausea.
How is heart disease in women diagnosed when they are experiencing confusing symptoms?
A definitive diagnosis may be challenging when the symptoms are not classic cardiac textbook presentation. Women have an intuitive awareness of both their physical and emotional well being. Using that knowledge, along with a precise description of the symptoms, will help your primary care physician determine which tests are required to evaluate your case.
Your recall of the event is important. First, note the time of the onset of the event and how long the episode lasted. A description of the type of sensation or discomfort and the location is also important. Next, what was your activity at the time of onset or during the subsequent episodes? Last, what medicines or methods did you use in an attempt to relieve the symptoms?
Anytime you are concerned about the symptoms you are experiencing, consider calling 9-1-1 for immediate assistance. Be prepared to tell the Emergency Medical Services provider which hospital you prefer for treatment.
What questions should I ask my primary care physician about heart disease in women?
Questions to ask during your visit to your provider include:
- Am I at risk for heart disease?
- What are the warning signs or symptoms for heart disease in women?
- What is the latest information on using low-dose aspirin or supplements for prevention and treatment?
- What are the results of my blood pressure, cholesterol level, and body mass index and are those numbers within normal limits?
- What lifestyle changes can I make to improve my heart health?
- If I experience the symptoms of a heart attack, what should I do and where should I go?
If you would like additional information or educational opportunities about heart disease in women, please contact Susan Butler at 336-713-4427.
You may also make an appointment with one of Wake Forest Baptist's primary care physicians.