Signs of Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Rawa Sarji, DO, talks about recognizing the signs of heart disease and how to prevent it.

Feb. 7, 2024 5   min read

An older Black woman puts her hand on her head  suggesting she is dizzy

In the United States, heart disease causes the deaths of one of every four women. As the number one cause of death in women in the U.S., heart disease is responsible for seven times as many women’s deaths as cancer.

Even with raised awareness on this topic, just 50 percent of women say they recognize that cardiovascular disease is their greatest health risk, according to the American Heart Association.

Rawa Sarji, DO, FACC, is a cardiologist with Rochester Regional Health and explains what symptoms women should look for with heart disease, what factors put them at higher risk, and how they can prevent it.

Symptoms of heart disease in women

The ‘classic’ symptoms of heart disease are the same for men and women, which include:

  • chest pain
  • pressure
  • squeezing sensation
  • heaviness
  • pain radiating down the left arm or both arms

Along with the symptoms mentioned above, women often experience different heart attack symptoms than men, such as:

  • unusual dizziness or lightheadedness
  • unusual weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • profound fatigue

“Most people think of heart attacks when they hear ‘heart disease,” Dr. Sarji said. “While this is true, there are also conditions to be aware of, such as arrhythmias, valvular disorders, and heart failure.”

Risk factors for women

Some risk factors for heart disease can be changed, while others cannot. Non-modifiable risk factors for women and heart disease include their age, family history, autoimmune diseases, and race or ethnicity.

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • quitting smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • high stress levels
  • diabetes
  • being overweight
  • lack of exercise

For women specifically, there are two distinct periods of time in their lives when they are at an increased risk for heart disease: pregnancy and menopause.

During pregnancy, research shows approximately 10-20 percent of women have one or more health issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, preeclampsia, or other conditions. These health conditions can elevate their risk of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

When women go through menopause, research shows the gradual reduction of estrogen levels being released is linked to several changes, including higher blood pressure, weight gain, along with increased blood sugar and cholesterol. All of these factors can raise a woman’s risk of heart disease.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can also predispose women to developing diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea.

Reducing the risk

As with many things related to health, taking a proactive approach is better rather than a reactive approach.

One way to start taking action is having a conversation with your primary care provider about the important health numbers: weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Aligning these numbers to be in the healthy range is a good first step.

Many of the modifiable risk factors can be changed through small choices made every day. The most significant change a person can make is to quit smoking; making this decision has positive effects on their health from the moment they stop.

Going for a 30-minute walk or bike ride once a day is a great way to work toward the recommended 150 minutes of exercise each week. With eating, replacing even one meat-based meal with a plant-based meal each week can have health benefits.

Recognizing sources of stress in a person’s life and actively working to reduce or remove them is another way to lessen the risk for heart disease.

“There is a big misunderstanding that heart disease isn’t preventable. This is not the case,” Dr. Sarji said. “There are some risk factors that we can’t fix. But there are a lot of risk factors that we can fix.”

Women in Rochester will soon have a new place to receive heart care specifically with them in mind. In March, the new Women’s Health & Wellness Center will be open in Pittsford Plaza, adjacent to Century Liquor. Patients will be offered primary care, gynecology, behavioral health, ultrasound, and wellness services at the Center, as well.

“Women-centric care is paramount in the diagnosis, treatment and management of cardiac disease, recognizing the unique ways in which these conditions present and progress in women," said Sarah Taylor, MD, a cardiologist who will see patients at the Women’s Health & Wellness Center. “Historically, cardiac research and treatment protocols have been male-centric, at the risk of overlooking the distinct symptoms and risk factors associated with heart disease in women. The Women's Health and Wellness Center focuses on bridging this gap, offering specialized cardiac care that is attuned to the nuances of the female heart.”

Rochester Regional Health is committed to making health care convenient and accessible, and meeting our patients wherever they are.

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