Women and Coronary Artery Disease
Why is it important for women to learn about coronary artery disease?
Coronary artery disease is a leading cause of death for women throughout the world. More women die from heart disease than from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer's, and accidents combined.1
But many women underestimate the threat coronary artery disease (CAD) poses to their health. And many women do not know what they can do to help prevent heart disease.
What is coronary artery disease?
Coronary artery disease is caused by the gradual buildup of plaque (made of fat, cholesterol and other substances) on the inside walls of the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Over time, the plaque deposits grow large enough to narrow the arteries' inside channels, decreasing blood flow to heart muscle. If the plaque becomes unstable and ruptures, a blood clot can form at the rupture site and block blood flow, resulting in a heart attack. See a picture of how plaque causes a heart attack.
What factors lead to coronary artery disease in women?
Menopause. A woman's chance of getting coronary artery disease is higher after menopause. This higher chance is not completely understood. But cholesterol, high blood pressure, and fat around the abdomen—all risk factors for coronary artery disease—also increase around this time.
Hormone replacement therapy. Taking estrogen with or without progestin does not prevent coronary artery disease. In fact, if you are 10 or more years past menopause, taking hormone therapy may raise your risk of coronary artery disease.2
Birth control pills. Using birth control pills might increase your risk if you smoke and are older than 35 or if you have a family history of atherosclerosis or blood-clotting disorders.
Pregnancy-related problems. A problem during pregnancy called preeclampsia has been linked to a higher risk of heart disease later in life. Experts are studying whether other pregnancy-related problems are linked to heart disease. Tell your doctor about any problems you had during pregnancy.
Heart disease risk factors for both women and men
How will my doctor determine my risk for coronary artery disease?
Your doctor will calculate your risk for coronary artery disease by assessing the number of risk factors you have. Risk factors include:
To find out your risk of a heart attack, see:
What can women do to prevent coronary artery disease?
Women can use healthy lifestyle changes and medicines to help prevent coronary artery disease. Women can also balance the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy when they decide whether or not to use it.
A healthy lifestyle can help prevent heart disease. And it can help you manage other problems that raise your risk of heart disease. These problems include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
You might take medicines, along with making healthy lifestyle changes, to lower your risk of heart disease. If you already have heart disease, medicine can help you prevent a heart attack or stroke. You might take:
What are symptoms of coronary artery disease and heart attack?
Knowing symptoms of a heart attack can help save lives. So even if you're not sure that your symptoms are from a heart attack, do not delay seeking care. Do not wait more than 5 minutes to call
Women are more likely than men to delay seeking help for a possible heart attack. Women delay for many reasons, like not being sure it is a heart attack, or not wanting to bother others. But it is better to be safe than sorry. If you have symptoms of a possible heart attack that last for 5 minutes, call
Pay attention to your symptoms, know what is typical for you, learn how to control it, and know when to call for help.
Symptoms of angina include chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest. Some people feel pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
Stable angina occurs at predictable times and may continue without much change for years. It is relieved by rest or nitrates (nitroglycerin) and usually lasts less than 5 minutes. Unstable angina is a change in the usual pattern of angina. It means blood flow has slowed suddenly. It is an emergency. It is a warning sign that a heart attack may soon occur.
Heart attack symptoms
For men and women, the most common symptom is chest pain or pressure. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.
After you call
When you get to the hospital, do not be afraid to speak up for what you need. Be sure your doctors know that you think you might be having a heart attack so that you can get the tests and care you need.
eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise
To learn more visit Healthwise.org