Heart Disease in Women: Understanding cardiovascular risk factors is the first step to heart health for women

doctor and patient

More women are getting the message that cardiovascular disease isn’t just for men. While women tend to develop heart disease about 10 years later than men, it remains the leading cause of death for both sexes. Women are particularly vulnerable because there are additional gender specific risks, beyond the traditional risk factors, that increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease in women. This is why I am committed to educating female patients on what can lead to heart disease and how we can work together to prevent it.

Understanding Common Risk Factors in Heart Disease

Men and women need to be aware of conditions that can cause serious risks for their heart. Whether you are a man and woman, you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by taking preventive measures early if you have one or more of those common risk factors.

  • Quit smoking because the number one thing anyone can do to prevent disease – heart or otherwise – is to stop smoking. Smoking, including e-cigarettes, is the most preventable cause of death in the United States. Giving up the habit can have a tremendous effect on your health, life span and ability to enjoy life down the road.
  • If you have high cholesterol, taking cholesterol lowering medications, like statins, can help manage the condition and prevent atherosclerosis, or fatty deposits that build in the arteries. For patients who cannot take statin drugs, or for those who need additional treatment, there are newer medications available to help lower cholesterol.
  • For those with hypertension, working with your physician to control your blood pressure, be it through diet, exercise and/or medication, will improve overall heart health.
  • Because diabetes can impact many organs in the body, including the heart, maintaining a healthy blood glucose with the help of your physician will benefit your heart function

Causes of Heart Disease in Women

The best first defense against heart disease is ensuring that women understand both the traditional risk factors that affect men and women and the female-specific cardiovascular risk factors. This will empower them to recognize a gender specific risk and ask the right questions about their heart health.

History of Pregnancy Complications

A history of pregnancy related complications and/or adverse pregnancy outcomes can raise a woman’s lifetime cardiovascular risk. Women who have had preeclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy, sometimes with fluid retention and proteinuria), pregnancy related hypertension or gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops in women during pregnancy) have an increased risk throughout their lifetime of developing cardiovascular disease. Current guidelines recommend these women be referred for cardiovascular risk reduction guidance within the first 3 months postpartum.

Premature Menopause, Menopause and Perimenopause

During and after menopause, a woman's body gradually decreases their estrogen production. Because estrogen is associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, women in premature menopause (before age 40), menopause and perimenopause are more susceptible to cardiovascular disease, including stroke.

Preventing heart disease before and after menopause will start with small changes that can have big impacts. Lifestyle adjustments can include regular exercise, having annual wellness check-ups to monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and maintaining a heart-healthy diet.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a metabolic syndrome that can lead to excess body fat, hypertension, abnormal cholesterol levels, diabetes and more. Having one or more of these conditions associated with PCOS can more than double a women’s lifetime risk of a heart attack or stroke.

If you are diagnosed with PCOS, it is important to meet with a preventive cardiologist to understand how you can lower your risk of heart disease. This might include monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose to identify any early heart disease issues.

Autoimmune Diseases

Systemic autoimmune disorders, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, are highly prevalent in women and increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Women with autoimmune disease should be evaluated early for cardiovascular disease. Where appropriate, high-risk women can be treated with a heart-healthy diet, exercise and/or a long-term management plan for blood pressure or cholesterol abnormalities. It is never too early to intervene to reduce heart disease risk.

Psychological and Social Factors

For women, risk factors are not limited to physical conditions. Psychological and social factors can also lead to cardiovascular disease in women. If you are experiencing depression, stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or abuse, you have an increased risk of developing heart disease. These psychological and/or social factors can contribute to prolonged high blood pressure, which forces the heart to work harder. These physical reactions to psychological or social factors can exacerbate an existing heart condition or cause a new cardiovascular event such as a heart attack.

Kathleen Drinan, DO

Kathleen Drinan, DO

Kathleen Drinan, DO, FACC, FACOI, is a highly skilled clinical cardiologist with over 30 years of cardiac experience. Dr. Drinan is trained in preventive and non-invasive treatments for a wide range of heart conditions, including understanding the difference between heart disease in men and women.

Learn more about Dr. Drinan
Dr. Polonsky and patient

Heart Disease Prevention

UChicago Medicine cardiologists understand the risks and causes of heart disease, including hereditary factors that could play a part in your heart health, and we are dedicated to having you be a part of creating the strategies to avoid heart disease. 

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