Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. But did you know that a woman under age 50 who has a heart attack is twice as likely as a man to die (Source: WHF)? There are certain reasons why being a woman affects your heart disease risk. Because of this, you should find a doctor with expertise in treating women with heart disease.

What Kinds of Heart Disease Affect Women?

Heart disease is an umbrella term that includes diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Common forms of heart disease in women include:

  • Coronary heart disease, the most common form of heart disease in both women and men

  • Heart attack

  • Angina

  • Congestive heart failure

How Is Heart Disease Different in Women?

There are several surprising differences in heart disease between men and women. Women are less likely than men to have chest pain during a heart attack. Nearly two-thirds of women who die from a heart attack did not report chest pain (Source: WHF). Instead, women often describe feeling suddenly weak or fatigued, and may think it’s just a bout of the flu. Women are also more likely than men to have other symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, cold sweats, or weak and heavy arms. Moreover, some diagnostic tests aren’t as reliable in women as in men. For example, EKGs and stress tests can be more difficult to interpret or not as accurate in women.

Women who have a heart attack are more likely than men to have other serious conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure. These conditions complicate a heart attack, make treatments less effective, and increase the likelihood of serious or fatal problems. In addition, women with diabetes have double the risk of a second heart attack compared to men. Similarly, if you’re a woman and you smoke, you’re twice as likely to have a heart attack as male smokers.

Because of these differences, healthy lifestyle changes may actually improve a woman’s heart more than a man’s. This includes not smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising, not drinking alcohol excessively, and keeping a healthy weight.

On the flip side, young women are more protected from coronary heart disease than men. The hormone estrogen helps keep cholesterol levels healthy and blood vessels dilated until estrogen levels drop after menopause. This delays heart disease in women roughly ten years later in life than men. Despite this, heart disease is still the number one killer of women.

What Women Should Know About Choosing a Cardiologist

Heart disease in women is a hot topic because current research has found some disturbing trends about its treatment. Women are more likely than men to experience delays in care and they are less likely to receive recommended preventive and follow-up care than men. What’s more, surgeries for heart disease can be more difficult in women and women are more likely to have complications after surgery.

Some cardiologists have more experience caring for women with heart disease than others, so it’s very important to pick the right one. When choosing a cardiologist, be sure to ask the following questions:

  • What is your training and experience specifically related to women’s heart health?

  • Does the hospital where you practice offer specialized cardiac care for women?

If you aren’t comfortable with the cardiologist’s level of experience, ask for a referral to a colleague who specializes in women’s heart disease. With a little knowledge and a bit of investigation, you can find the best cardiologist for you.

Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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