The first symptoms for women suffering from heart disease may be pressure or mild discomfort in the chest, and sometimes there may be no chest pain at all. That’s because when women suffer a heart attack, they are far less likely to experience the crushing, suffocating chest pain normally associated with heart attacks in men.

Some common heart attack symptoms for women include:

  • Unusual fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating
  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, or back pain
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Pain in one or both arms

Because they are more subtle, these symptoms may be ignored by women, especially women who are seniors. A woman’s heart attack may even be misdiagnosed by health care professionals.

Recognizing the symptoms early on and seeking help is vital, but preventing heart disease—the number one cause of death for both men and women—is the best defense.

To bring attention to this fact, February 1st has been designated by the awareness campaign Heart Truth as National Wear Red Day. Women and men are encouraged to wear red to show their support of women’s heart health.

Risk Factors for Women

Men and women share many similar risks for heart disease: high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and obesity to name a few. However, some conditions pose a higher risk of heart disease in women than men. They include:

  • Menopause
  • Mental stress
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Inactivity
  • Pregnancy complications

In addition, some cancer therapies like those used to treat breast cancer can increase the risk of heart disease.

A condition called “broken heart syndrome” brought on by stress, usually after menopause, may cause temporary heart muscle failure, and the symptoms can mimic a heart attack Also, low levels of estrogen are a significant factor for cardiovascular disease. Associated weight gain and an increase in blood pressure adds to the risk.

According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes is “a powerful risk factor for heart disease in women.” Women with diabetes are two times more likely to have a second heart attack and four times more likely to have heart failure than women without diabetes.

Even though the onset of heart disease develops, on average, 7 to 10 years later in women than men, there is no special protection for women from heart disease.


The list of heart disease prevention steps includes the following:

Before embarking upon any changes in weight, diet, exercise, or for questions about medications, consult your physician.

Below is some general information that may help in the conversation with your physician.

Also note: If you have heart disease, many of these same steps may still apply to help prevent or slow the advance of the disease.

What Should You Weigh?

The answer to this question varies. Your body type (light, medium, or large frame) must be factored in. Here is a quick and easy calculator which will give you some idea of your healthy weight.

How Much Should You Exercise?

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. Strength training at least twice a week is also recommended. The Mayo Clinic provides detailed information about exercise intensity.

They also caution that people with diabetes or more than one other risk factor for heart disease should consult with their physician before starting a vigorous exercise program. A physician consultation is also recommended for women age 55 and older.

Don’t Smoke To Prevent Heart Disease

Smoking is a risk factor for men and women, but it creates a higher risk for women. Smoking raises blood pressure, increases heart rate, damages blood vessels, reduces how much oxygen your heart receives, and makes blood clots more likely.

Eat a Healthy Diet

The American Heart Association recommends consuming a healthy diet consisting of a variety of fruits and vegetables, grain products, fish and non-processed foods low in saturated fats. Limit sodium intake and, for women, have no more than one alcoholic drink per day.

Foods high in saturated fats can create too much cholesterol that tends to build up in the arteries as plaque and slow or block blood flow. When plaque obstructs coronary arteries, it can lead to heart disease.

However, there is a good type and a bad type of cholesterol. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) is the “good” cholesterol that carries bad cholesterol back to the liver for elimination. When you hear you have high cholesterol, it means the bad LDL. Healthy cholesterol ranges depend upon your age and physical condition, so check with your physician.

Take Medications as Prescribed

This seems obvious, but blood thinners, medications for high blood pressure and cholesterol, and other heart-related medications should be taken as prescribed and not discontinued until your physician tells you to stop.

Taking a daily low-dose of aspirin has been a popular preventative measure for heart problems, but there are risks associated with it. The Mayo Clinic provides information on the effects of low-dose aspirin.

Please talk to your physician before starting an aspirin regimen. He or she knows your medical history and the medications you are taking, and how you may react.

At Bethesda, we’re committed to senior health and wellness. Continue reading for more tips throughout the year.