If you think heart disease is primarily a man’s issue, you’re not alone… but you are mistaken. According to Health Line, more women than men have died from heart disease each of the last 30 years. The higher death rates for women occur despite the disease striking men and women in relatively equal numbers and being the leading cause of death in both genders. Not only do more women die from cardiac disease, they are more likely to be done in by a single heart attack, Health Line says. All told, about 25 percent of deaths in women are attributed to heart disease.
Why do women and men experience heart disease so differently? The Mayo Clinic says women’s symptoms are more likely to surface when they’re at rest or asleep. Because the pain associated with heart attacks in women often isn’t overwhelming, women may not recognize a cardiac event in progress and seek treatment after the heart muscle has been damaged.
Coronary MVD a Particular Concern for Women
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that a specific variant of heart disease – coronary microvascular disease – is more prominent in women than men and may help account for the higher death rates. What’s worse, standard tests for heart disease aren’t designed to detect MVD, according to NLBI, and may provide women false assurance they’re not at risk.
In MVD, the walls and linings of small arteries suffer damage leading to spasms and decreased blood flow, the American Heart Association explains. Hormones may play a role in the development of MVD, which frequently occurs alongside diabetes, high blood pressure, or a family history of cardiomyopathy. MVD often strikes younger women; those with high systolic blood pressure or low estrogen levels seem to be at particular risk, the AHA says. After menopause, the risk factors for MVD are similar to those for atherosclerosis.
Women’s Heart Disease Signs and Symptoms
For MVD in particular, the signs and symptoms include angina (chest pain), shortness of breath, sleep problems, fatigue and lack of energy. AHA distinguishes the onset of MVD symptoms from those of other forms of heart disease, saying symptoms are less likely to occur during physical exertion with MVD and instead appear during routine activities or when under mental stress.
Mayo Clinic provides a checklist of common symptoms for heart disease in women overall. While chest pain, pressure or discomfort tops the list, the pain may not be severe or even the most prominent symptom, Mayo warns. Women’s symptoms are likely to include neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort; shortness of breath; right arm pain; nausea or vomiting; sweating; lightheadedness or dizziness; or unusual fatigue. When these symptoms surface, a timely emergency room visit may forestall further heart damage and even death.