Women and Matters of the Heart (Disease, that is)

Picture a typical heart attack victim.  What does your mind’s eye configure?  A stressed out, midlife male who’s consumed too many New York Strips?  I thought so.  It’s why there’s a robust campaign underway to ensure women get the message – they’re just as vulnerable to heart disease as men.

Heart disease is ruthless, the number one killer in our society – and it isn’t sexist.  Women suffer as much as men do, but the symptoms may appear a bit differently, and their diagnosis often takes longer to uncover.  For a long while many advocates fought to give more attention to women when it came to researching women and heart disease, and in recent years that effort’s paid off with deeper knowledge.  Check out the facts:

  • Cardiac physiology is different in men and women.  (No surprise really, since men and women differ profoundly physiologically and and psychologically.)  Heart disease in men typically involves the larger blood vessels of the heart whereas for women, heart disease may only involve the smaller vessels of the heart.
  • Symptoms of heart attacks are often markedly different in men then women. Symptoms of heart attacks for women might appear to be more subtle than those experienced by men.  At the onset, women may feel dizzy, or feel a numbing sensation in their arms, neck or shoulders.
  • For many years, it was assumed estrogen served as a protective function for women against the development of heart disease. Because of this theory, providers believed that continuing the heart’s exposure to this hormone via replacement therapy, even post-menopause, helped in prevention.  This practice was based on the known fact that pre-menopausal women did not experience heart disease at the same rate as same age-matched males.   But as medical science gained greater understanding of the subsets of cholesterol metabolism known as HDL (“good cholesterol”) and LDL (“bad cholesterol”) we learned that LDL levels tend to rise as women begin to lose their estrogen.  In a sense, post-menopausal women are dealt a double whammy – they no longer have estrogen to protect their hearts, but they now have higher LDL levels to contribute to the development of heart disease. However, this practice has fallen out of favor recently since it’s cardio-protective benefits beyond 5 years no longer exerts much influence.  The dilemma, however, is that we cannot allow the atherosclerotic (“hardening of the arteries”) effects of elevated LDL levels to go unchecked, either.

Today, post-menopausal women are at risk for heart disease on a par with age-matched males.  Yet, while women seem to be catching up to men in the development of heart disease, they are not being discovered or treated at the same rates as men.  Check out this article to see proof:


The upshot?  You must act as your strongest advocate for heart health.  Start your own personal prevention campaign today; focus on the basics – eat a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetable, and get plenty of exercise and rest.  And be certain to see your health care provider if you experience symptoms such as dizziness, numbing or pain in your arms, neck or shoulder.

Make sure you take care of the heart that cares for everyone else!