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Heart Disease & Gender: How Men and Women Differ

February 12, 2014

Did you know that heart disease affects men differently than women? It's true. While we all may have the same heart muscle, research has shown over the years that heart disease has a much different effect on women than it does on men. So, what are these differences exactly? Here is a breakdown of several ways that this common condition can affect each gender:

How does heart disease in women differ from heart disease in men?

Heart disease has often been thought of as a problem that affects mostly men. However, more women than men die every year of heart disease. Women tend to experience heart disease approximately ten years later than men, and they also tend to have a worse prognosis with heart disease once they've been diagnosed. The risk for stroke and heart failure for women is greater than for coronary artery disease. This is in contrast to what we see in men.

How do the symptoms of a heart attack in women differ from the symptoms in men?

Women usually present with milder symptoms, although chest pressure is still the most common symptom. However, it can be very mild and may be mistaken for minor discomfort. In contrast to men, women can experience more of the following symptoms during a heart attack: shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, indigestion, fatigue, sweating, dizziness or lightheadedness, and pain in the arm, shoulder, neck, jaw or upper back.

Are there any risk factor differences between women and men that make women predisposed to have a less positive outcome from a heart attack?

Often times, when women go to the emergency room with a heart attack, their symptoms have been present for a longer period of time as compared to men. Also, women tend to have more illnesses not related to the heart that make them more vulnerable to have complications during a heart attack. For example, lung disease, kidney disease and arrhythmias can all contribute to a woman's risk for complications during a heart attack.

In addition, women usually have smaller heart vessels, more clots in the heart arteries and more spasms of the heart arteries. Having smaller heart vessels can make women prone to more complications during heart procedures.

Are women at higher risk for complications during heart procedures and heart surgery than men?

Several studies have shown that women have more complications than men during the implantation of pacemakers and defibrillators. These studies have also shown that women get less of these cardiac devices when they need them, as compared to men. After bypass surgery (also called coronary artery bypass surgery – CABG), women have a higher risk of dying prior to being discharged from the hospital, as compared to men.

How can women help prevent and treat heart disease?

Because we need to reduce our risk for heart disease and keep ourselves healthy so that we can continue to care for the ones we love, several large studies have been done over the years, which have led to a unique set of guidelines on how to prevent and treat heart disease in women. For example, these guidelines tell your doctor that if you are 65 years of age or older, you should be taking 81 mg of aspirin daily to reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke.