Heart Health for Women

Hannah I. Chaudry, MD

With February being National Heart Month, it’s timely to increase awareness around heart disease being the number one cause of death for men and women in the United States—and how to prevent it. Women often have non-classic heart attack symptoms and are at a higher risk of heart disease after menopause. By understanding heart disease risks and symptoms, following a heart-healthy diet and tuning in to their bodies, women can actively protect their hearts and overall health. 

Signs of heart attack and heart disease

It’s important to know and recognize the signs of a heart attack. The classic symptoms for both men and women include chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting. But women—especially seniors—are more likely to experience non-classic signs that can be difficult to link to the heart. These include pain in the back, jaw, arm or abdomen, indigestion and a general sense of not feeling well. Unfortunately, these signs that a woman is having a heart attack are often missed and go untreated.

Women at risk for heart disease can have no symptoms, but typically have certain risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Smoking tobacco is a proven cause of coronary artery disease and heart attacks in otherwise healthy women as young as their 20s and 30s. As we age, heart disease risk increases, especially after menopause due to the sharp decrease in protective estrogen levels.

Make it a priority: protect your heart

There are ways women can improve their heart health and lower their risk of heart disease and heart attack. Living a heart-healthy lifestyle includes:

  • Avoiding smoking.

  • Limiting alcohol use.

  • Eating well.

  • Exercising daily, or 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise at least five times per week.

  • Visiting the doctor regularly, especially for heart disease risk factor screening: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. If these conditions exist but are well-controlled with diet and medication, the risk of heart attack is lower.

Following a healthy diet is an effective way to improve heart health. It’s best to avoid cholesterol-boosting saturated fats, which are mostly animal products like cheeses, butter and red meats, and replace them with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. These healthy fats are found in fish, nuts, seeds and seed oils like olive oil. In addition, eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (instead of refined grains) will lower the risk of cholesterol build-up and overall heart disease.

For more heart health tips and to learn about the Heart & Vascular Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (D-H), visit www.dartmouth-hitchcock.org/heart-vascular.