Just as for men, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S. But in many respects, understanding and maintaining heart health is completely different for women than for men.
“Women’s hearts are different than men’s in many ways,” says Dr. Susan O’Donoghue, cardiac electrophysiologist with the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
During American Heart Month, WTOP is talking to MedStar cardiologists to share advice about how we can all be less likely to become a statistic.
“Even though women prior to menopause are somewhat protected by estrogen from heart disease, after menopause women start to catch up with men in terms of the incidence of heart disease and cardiovascular disease in general,” O’Donoghue said. “It’s very important that we know that and modify our risk factors.”
O’Donoghue suggests three areas that are important for women to understand about heart disease.
Tip 1: Know your potential risks now — and later
Heart disease is preventable, so women need to be aware of their potential risk of developing cardiovascular issues as each stage of their lives, O’Donoghue said.
To start, women need to know their hereditary risk factors, she said. “High blood pressure: Does it run in their family? High cholesterol: Does it run in their family? Even if a woman is eating a very healthy diet and exercising, if she has an inherited tendency for elevated cholesterol, she could still be at risk for heart disease.”
O’Donoghue suggests women start discussing with their doctors at a young age any risk factors that could contribute to cardiovascular disease and what can be done to modify those risks. Then, continue to have those discussions, she said. “A woman needs to know at each stage of her life.”
Tip 2: Listen to your body
“Women are often the caregivers,” O’Donoghue said. “We need to take care of ourselves as well.”
That starts by understanding that a woman in the early stages of heart disease, or even having a full-blown heart attack, might not exhibit what people generally think of as the classic symptoms. For instance, it might not feel like an elephant sitting on your chest, she said.
A woman having a heart attack might experience nausea, arm or jaw pain, or shortness of breath, O’Donoghue said.
Once a woman knows her risk potential, she needs to pay attention to what her body might be trying to tell her, she advised. “Women need to be cognizant of symptoms that are new for them and seek evaluation.”
Tip 3: Learn about arrhythmia and how it can affect the female heart
A specialist in the heart’s electrical systems and rhythms, O’Donoghue noted that this is another area in which women differ from men when it comes to heart health.
“Women are more prone, for instance, to having a rhythm disturbance as an adverse side effect from certain medications than men are,” she said. Also, pregnancy can affect heart rhythm. A woman needs to know this before she gets pregnant, O’Donoghue advised.
“There are so many good treatments now for heart rhythm disorders that can be curative,” she said. “We have very powerful tools for treating heart rhythm problems.”
Learn more heart health tips now and listen to our full conversation with Dr. Susan O’Donoghue of the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute.