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Women’s Heart Health

Heart health is not one-size-fits-all

Women's hearts began to get more attention in the early 2000s, when organizations such as the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute launched campaigns to educate women and their health care providers about heart disease.

Before then, the condition — which can cause heart attack and stroke — had acquired a reputation as a men’s affliction. While that reputation lingers today, says Lynne Braun, PhD, ANP, a nurse practitioner at the Rush Heart Center for Women, more people now know that heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, and that it kills more women than men.

Spurred in part by this heightened awareness, researchers and clinicians have begun to identify the ways in which the disease affects women differently than men. These differences, Braun says, mean that women need care customized for them — from prevention to diagnosis and treatment.

Preventing disease

Braun stresses that care tailored for women should begin with prevention. "A lot of women put off taking care of themselves because they're busy taking care of others and not thinking of themselves," she says. "So they need to be encouraged to prioritize their own health."

That means routinely making time for activities — such as regular exercise and preparing healthy meals — that promote heart health. These preventive measures are particularly important for women because studies have shown that certain risk factors, including diabetes and smoking, are more powerful risk factors for women than for men.

Detecting the difference

Research also suggests that heart disease, which typically results from a build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries, can develop differently in men and women. Women are more likely than men to have plaque blockages in smaller, rather than major, arteries. (This tendency might explain some of the difference between women's and men’s heart attack symptoms. See below).

And whereas men with cardiovascular disease generally develop distinct clumps of plaque, in women the substance tends to coat artery walls. As a result, diagnostic procedures such as angiograms might not work as accurately in women, sometimes reflecting minimal problems even in those with advanced disease.

Treating the individual

Under the direction of cardiologist Annabelle Volgman, MD, clinicians at the Rush Heart Center for Women draw on their unique experience caring for women's hearts to determine the most appropriate diagnostic tests and treatments.

For example, clinical evidence suggests that women report more side effects from medication, so clinicians at the center work with women to decrease doses, try creative dosing regimens and change medications when necessary.

"We use all of the data and clinical guidelines at our disposal," Braun says. "But our patients are also individual people sitting there in front of us, and we can help them with our wealth of clinical knowledge of what works and doesn't work. We leave no stone unturned."

Heart attack symptoms in women

Chest pain is the most common symptom of heart attack in women, but it appears in only half of women who have heart attacks, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. In women, this symptom may be milder than the intense pain often associated with heart attack. Women also are more likely than men to experience the following heart attack symptoms:

  • Neck pain
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Lightheadedness and fainting
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue

If you think you are having a heart attack, act immediately. Call 911 or your local emergency number.

March 2011