Heart Disease

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women. Women experience symptoms differently than men — knowing what signs to look for can save your life.

The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease. Your coronary arteries carry blood to your heart. When these arteries are narrowed, blood flow to your heart is reduced and your heart doesn’t function properly. Narrowing of the vessels can be the result of vessel dysfunction including what’s commonly known as plaque or atherosclerosis. Over time, this can seriously impact your health.

Reduced blood flow to your heart can cause:

  • Angina – Occurs when your heart doesn’t get enough blood, causing chest pain.
  • Heart attack – Occurs when your heart loses its blood supply, causing portions of it to become damaged.
  • Congestive heart failure – Occurs when your heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should, causing fluid buildup in your lungs. 
  • Arrhythmia – Causes your heart to beat at irregular speeds or intervals.

Heart Disease in Women

Many people think heart disease is predominately a men’s health condition, but more women die of heart disease than men. And, women have unique and varied symptoms and risk factors of heart disease.

Women’s Heart Disease Risk Factors

While high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity are risk factors for both men and women, other factors contribute more heavily to a woman’s chance of developing heart disease:

  • Diabetes. Although diabetes increases the risk of heart disease in both men and women, the risk is significantly higher in women.
  • Hormonal conditions. Conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome pose an increased risk of developing heart disease. The risk of developing heart disease also increases for women after menopause.
  • Metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, high cholesterol and extra fat around the waist. This condition puts women at greater risk of developing heart disease than it does men.
  • Physical inactivity. A sedentary lifestyle has become the No. 1 risk factor for developing heart disease.
  • Pregnancy complications. High blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease later in life.
  • Smoking. Women who smoke are at greater risk for developing heart disease than men who smoke.
  • Stress and depression. Although stress and depression affect men’s and women’s heart health, these conditions have a greater impact on women’s hearts.

Broken-Heart Syndrome

One of the most striking examples of heart-related sex differences is the prevalence of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome. This condition, which involves a temporary enlargement and weakening of the heart, affects far more women than men — more than 90 percent of reported cases are in women ages 58 to 75. Stress cardiomyopathy is often triggered by extreme emotional or physical distress. Symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy are the same as those of a heart attack. A woman showing signs of a heart attack may actually have this disorder. However, the effects of this syndrome are less severe than that of a heart attack.

Heart Attack Symptoms for Women

Women may experience different symptoms than men during a heart attack. Since their symptoms may be less obvious, women and their doctors are more likely to misread the situation. For example, women may experience chest pain, but it’s often more of a pressure or discomfort rather than a sudden, severe pain. Because of this, women tend to not recognize the signs and wait longer to seek medical help. The important thing to know is that the longer you wait to get medical help, the more damage occurs in your heart.

You don’t always have chest pain during a heart attack. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms — with or without chest pain — call 911 immediately:

  • Pressure, discomfort or pain in your chest.
  • Pain or discomfort in your neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, stomach and/or one or both arms. 
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Rapid heartbeat (fluttering in your chest).
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Sweating.
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Unexplained fatigue or weakness.


Eighty percent of what causes cardiovascular disease involves your lifestyle choices. You can support your heart health by getting regular checkups to monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol, along with practicing healthy lifestyle habits.

There are additional steps you can take to help prevent heart disease, including:

  • Eat right. Incorporate plenty of fruits, vegetables, fiber and healthy fats into your diet.
  • Establish a physical activity plan. You don’t need to be a competitive athlete to reap the heart healthy rewards of exercise. Walking just 20 minutes a day can significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Having extra fat around your stomach and waist is associated with metabolic syndrome and puts you at a higher risk for heart disease than having extra fat in other areas of your body. Your doctor can help you establish a healthy eating and exercise plan if you need help losing weight.
  • Limit alcohol. Women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day — more than one is associated with health risks.
  • Quit smoking. Women who smoke are twice as likely to have a heart attack as nonsmoking women. Quitting is the single best step you can take to improve your overall health.

At El Camino Health, we offer a wide range of preventive education and classes to help you adopt healthy habits, prevent heart disease and maintain good health.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The Norma Melchor Heart & Vascular Institute at El Camino Health provides advanced diagnostic services and a full range of treatment options, including minimally invasive techniques in our cardiac catheterization lab.