February is heart health month. Click here to learn more about our Go Red! educational events.

Heart disease has been the leading cause of death for women since 1908. Every year since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease. Women are twice as likely as men to die after a heart attack. In fact, heart disease will kill more women than all forms of cancer combined. It is unfortunate that far too often, women with heart disease are not diagnosed and do not receive the timely care they need.

Here are the facts on women and heart disease:

  1. Women’s heart attacks are twice as likely to be fatal as men’s.
  2. Men’s coronary artery plaque tends to distribute in clumps, whereas women’s tends to distribute more evenly throughout artery walls, thus lending credibility to cardiologists’ suspicion that “men explode, but women erode.“ This tendency results in women’s diagnostic tests frequently being misinterpreted as “normal.”
  3. Women are seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed than men.
  4. Women wait longer than men to go to a hospital.
  5. Women are less likely than men to receive standard treatment. A study published in the European Heart Journal showed that among heart patients, women were less likely than men to receive medications like beta blockers, statins and ACE inhibitors – which are crucial to prevent further heart problems.  Women are also less likely than men to receive implanted defibrillator devices to control irregular heartbeats, or even aspirin following a cardiac event.
  6. Women are two to three times more likely to die following open heart bypass surgery.
  7. Diabetes doubles the risk of a second heart attack in women, but not in men.
  8. The best course of treatment for a woman with heart disease has yet to be established, because women make up less than 24 percent of participants in all heart-related research studies even though they make up 53 percent of heart patients.
  9. After a heart attack, women are more likely than men to experience poor physical and mental functioning, lower quality of life, recurring chest pain and physical limitations.

In terms of noticing the warning signs of a heart attack, there are also differences between the sexes:

Chest pain or tightness (chest pain may be centrally, or felt armpit to armpit) X X
Arm and neck pain X X
Left or right arm pain X X
Shoulder or upper back pain X X
Throat or jaw pain X X
Nausea or stomach pain X X
Indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain X
Shortness of breath X X
Extreme fatigue X
Anxiety X
Loss of appetite X
Sleep disturbances X
Cold sweats X
Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness X


It is worth noting that about 40 percent of women, experience no chest symptoms at all. However, despite these findings, the American Heart & Stroke Associations note that chest pain is still the most common warning sign in both sexes, affecting about 60 percent of all heart attack patients.

Whether you’re male or female, there are things you can start doing today to prevent and reduce your risk of heart disease. The sooner you address these issues, the better your chances of preventing heart disease or a heart attack.

  • Quit the use of tobacco products.
  • Engage in 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
  • If you’re diabetic, controlling your blood sugar.
  • If you’re hypertensive, control your blood pressure.
  • Reduce your salt, processed and fatty food intake. Start eating more fresh produce and healthy grains.
  • Take care of your mental health. If you suffer from depression, stress or anxiety, find support for your emotional and psychological well-being.
  • Make an appointment with your doctor to assess heart disease risk.


Joanne Lauten, MSN, SCRN, CPHQ is Director of Nursing Quality/Stroke Coordinator at Mather Hospital