What Women Need to Know About Heart Health

Dr. Donnica Moore, celebrated women's health expert and author of Women's Health for Life: Written by Women for Women: Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention, shares her thoughts on women and heart health.

Donnica Moore, MD
Reviewed by
Philip Levy, MD
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Women tend to listen to their hearts, at least that's the common belief. Even so, we still may not be getting one message very clearly: We need to pay very close attention to our heart health.

The good news is that women are now living longer than their mothers and much longer than their grandmothers. Our overall quality of life is better, too; we are healthier, more active and more independent than ever before. Much of this is due to medical advances and public health measures. We also know how to take care of ourselves more proactively.

But when it comes to heart health, you may be surprised to learn that millions of women are walking around with some form of heart disease but have not been diagnosed. In fact, each year heart disease takes the lives of nearly 500,000 American women.

How women are different
There are many reasons why women are at greater risk for heart disease than men. Some of the reasons include:

  • Lack of basic awareness. Many women lack the basic awareness that heart disease is their biggest killer and that it can affect women as well as men.
  • Different symptoms. Women's symptoms may be different from men's, so women may not always recognize that their symptoms could be related to heart disease. Women, therefore, tend to seek medical help later than men.
  • Test sensitivity. Basic cardiac tests tend to be less sensitive in women than in men, making it more challenging to diagnose heart disease in women than in men.
  • The hormone factor. Since women tend to be protected by the female hormone estrogen until menopause, heart disease is more of a problem in women age 50 and older. Often, by the time a woman goes to the doctor with symptoms, not only is she older, but she is more likely to have additional health problems, such as diabetes.
  • Size matters. Women tend to have smaller coronary arteries than men, so treating women with either coronary angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery can be more challenging.

Whatever your age or your circumstances, the best way to minimize any health risks is to adopt healthy habits. And remember this: Taking even small steps toward improving your health is better than doing nothing at all. It's never too late to start improving your health.

December 2012