Heart Disease in Women | William G. & Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine | Loyola Medicine

Heart Disease in Women

Overview and Facts about Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease (also known as cardiovascular disease) is the number one killer of women. It causes approximately 1 in 4 deaths each year. Heart disease does not affect all women the same way and warning signs tend to differ from men. Recognizing the signs, knowing the risk factors, and getting proper treatment are the best ways to prevent and fight this disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease is a broad term that describes a range of heart conditions. These conditions include:

The signs and symptoms of heart disease depend on the type of heart condition.

  • Coronary artery disease: a common symptom is angina—a temporary squeezing sensation in the chest, palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, and sweating caused by the poor blood supply to the heart.
  • Heart attack: Unlike men, women can have a heart attack without experiencing gripping chest pain. Symptoms last more than a few minutes and may include: uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or pain in the chest; pain in one or both arms, the back, neck or jaw; shortness of breath; nausea, dizziness, sweating or lightheadedness.
  • Heart failure: fatigue, swelling of feet and ankles, shortness of breath, and fluid backing up into the lungs
  • Irregular heartbeat: fast or slow heartbeat, skipping heartbeats, shortness of breath, sweating or dizziness.
  • Valve disease: fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling of ankles or feet, irregular heartbeat, fainting or dizziness.

Causes and Risk Factors of Heart Disease in Women

According to the American Heart Association, an astonishing 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease. These risks include:

  • Diabetes
  • Stress and depression
  • Smoking
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Menopause. Low estrogen levels are a risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (coronary microvascular disease).
  • Certain chemotherapy drugs

Tests and Diagnosis of Heart Disease in Women

When heart disease is suspected, one or more of the following tests may be used:

  • Electrocardiogram: detects and records the heart's electrical activity.
  • Stress test: an exercise test to assess the function of the heart when it is working harder and beating faster.
  • Echocardiography: provides information about the size and shape of the heart, and how well the heart chambers and valves are working.
  • Chest X-ray of the heart
  • Blood tests
  • Coronary Angiography: special X-rays to show the inside of the coronary arteries.

Treatment and Care for Heart Disease in Women

Treatment depends on the condition and may include a wide range of options, including: