Medically Reviewed by Sharon L. Mulvagh, MD
Director, Women's Heart Clinic
Professor of Medicine
Consultant in Cardiovascular Diseases
Mayo Clinic and College of Medicine
- Overview & Diagnosis
- Treatment & Prevention
- Facts to Know & Questions to Ask
- Key Q&A
- Lifestyle Tips
- Organizations and Support
What Is It?
Heart disease starts with a buildup of "plaque" in the blood vessels and, if untreated, can lead to heart attacks.
Listen to your heart. Many women don't recognize the warning signs of cardiovascular disease (CVD) until their health—and their lives—are in jeopardy. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for American women.
In fact, nearly twice as many women die from heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer combined, including breast cancer. And in each year from 1984 through 2012, more women died of cardiovascular diseases than men. The latest American Heart Association (AHA) statistics reveal that in 2013 slightly fewer women died than men.
CVD causes one in three women's deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every 80 seconds. An estimated 44 million women in the United States are affected by CVD, and 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke.
Cardiovascular disease includes coronary heart disease (CHD), also known as coronary artery disease (CAD), and “ischemic heart disease,” which are diseases of the heart's blood vessels that, if untreated, can cause heart attacks.
Like any muscle, the heart needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients, which are carried to it by the blood in the coronary arteries. When the coronary arteries become narrowed or clogged and cannot supply enough blood to the heart, the result is CAD. Sometimes—and more often in women than men—the smaller vessels that feed the heart muscle also become diseased, and this is referred to as coronary microvascular dysfunction, endothelial dysfunction, or, simply, small vessel disease, which can also cause chest pain and heart attacks.
Heart attack and stroke are common results of conditions that restrict or stop the blood flow to the heart or brain. At any given age, men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, but women are less likely than men to survive a heart attack and more likely to have another attack.
In addition, nearly 60 percent of stroke deaths occur in women. According to the AHA, each year, about 55,000 more women than men have strokes.
African-American women are more likely to die of CHD than Caucasian women, perhaps because they are more likely to have more risk factors, including high blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes and obesity, and are more likely to receive poorer health. Heart disease risk is also higher among Mexican Americans, Native Americans and native Hawaiians. This may be partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in these groups.
Coronary heart disease starts with atherosclerosis, a process in which fatty substances build up inside the walls of blood vessels. Blood components also stick on the surface inside vessel walls making the vessels narrower and eventually "hardened" and less flexible. The buildup and narrowing may proceed gradually and result in decreasing blood flow, followed by CHD symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. The buildup, or "plaque," may also break apart or "rupture" suddenly, which can further severely limit blood flow, causing an acute heart attack, or "myocardial infarction."
When blood flows more slowly at the site of narrowing, it can become "sticky" and eventually form a clot. This blood clot can narrow the opening of the coronary artery even further, which can reduce blood flow to the heart, leading to chest pain, or angina.
If blood flow is nearly or completely blocked, a heart attack can occur, leading to the death of muscle cells in the heart that are fed by that coronary artery. Because the cells cannot be replaced, the result is permanent heart damage. Each year, up to half a million American women suffer heart attacks, an all-too-frequent outcome of CHD.
Women have sex-specific risks for CVD. Prior to menopause, estrogen is thought to provide some protection to women against heart disease. (Premenopausal women who have diabetes or who smoke are not adequately protected by estrogen because diabetes and smoking are major risk factors for heart disease.) Women who have a premature menopause (younger than age 40) suffer increased risk for CVD, unless they take menopausal hormone therapy.
Scientists are still learning about the actions of estrogen on the body. In terms of the cardiovascular system, estrogen works to keep a woman's arteries free from atherosclerotic plaque (the buildup of fatty substances, primarily composed of cholesterol, in the lining of the coronary artery wall), partly by improving the ratio of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Estrogen increases the amount of HDL cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol, which helps clear LDL cholesterol, the "bad" cholesterol, from the bloodstream, and avoid plaque buildup in the arteries. LDL cholesterol is a major contributor to CHD.
Research in women who started hormone therapy an average of 10 years after menopause showed a slight increase in risk of heart attack and stroke. However, subsequent studies have suggested that it is safe, from the cardiovascular standpoint, to take menopausal hormone therapy early in menopause, but it remains uncertain if hormone therapy can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. Ongoing studies continue to evaluate the effect of hormone therapy on CHD.
Risk Factors of Heart Disease
Over the last two decades, researchers have unearthed many risk factors for developing cardiovascular diseases. These include:
- Smoking. Smoking accelerates the development of atherosclerosis by constricting blood vessels, accelerating the formation of blood clots and restricting the amount of oxygen the blood supplies. Women who smoke are twice as likely as men to have heart attacks. Indeed, it is unusual to see a woman less than 55 years old with a heart attack, unless she is a smoker. Smokers who have heart attacks and strokes are more likely to die from them.
- High cholesterol levels. Elevated LDL cholesterol is a major cause of coronary heart disease. The first step to managing cholesterol is through lifestyle modifications, such as following a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco products and maintaining a healthy weight.
If those measures don't adequately manage your cholesterol, your health care provider may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication, called a statin. This decision will be based upon your overall CVD risk, determined by a scoring system according to guidelines developed by the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) in 2013.
The ACC/AHA guidelines identify four groups that benefit from taking a statin to lower their blood cholesterol. These groups are:
- People with clinical atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), acute coronary syndromes, or a history of heart attack, stable or unstable angina, coronary or other arterial revascularization, stroke, transient ischemic attack or peripheral arterial disease presumed to be of atherosclerotic origin (without New York Heart Association class II-IV heart failure or receiving hemodialysis, because the benefit was uncertain in these two groups).
- People with elevated LDL cholesterol greater than 190 mg/dL.
- People ages 40 to 75 who have diabetes and LDL cholesterol levels between 70 and 189 who do not have clinical ASCVD.
- People without clinical ASCVD or diabetes who are 40 to 75 years of age who have LDL cholesterol levels between 70 and 189 mg/dL and have an estimated 10-year ASCVD risk of 7.5 percent or higher.
Other lipid abnormalities, such as elevated triglycerides or low HDL, are also associated with increased cardiovascular risk, but there is currently no consensus on treating people with these "residual risk" factors.
- High blood pressure (hypertension). When the heart works too hard to pump blood through the body, the intensity can damage the walls of the arteries of the heart and body. A blood pressure reading records a systolic blood pressure, the highest pressure measured when the heart contracts with each beat, and a diastolic blood pressure, the lowest pressure measured in the arteries when the heart relaxes between beats. Even slightly high blood pressure levels can double your risk for heart disease. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mm Hg. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a blood pressure reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher. Between 120/80 mm Hg and 139/89 mm Hg is considered prehypertension. Recent studies have indicated that achieving a blood pressure goal of 120/80 mm Hg is desirable to reduce the risk of death by almost 25 percent and the rate of overall cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks, strokes and heart failure, by almost a third.
- Diabetes. People with diabetes have death rates from heart disease that are two to three times those of adults without diabetes. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related deaths. People with diabetes who have not yet had a heart attack have the same risk of future heart attack as someone with known coronary heart disease. Because their risk of heart attack is so high, many people with diabetes should be on statins and carefully manage their blood sugar to reduce their cardiovascular risk.
- Age. Generally, women over age 65 and men over age 55 are at greatest risk for developing atherosclerosis. The risk of cardiovascular events increases with age. "Premature" CVD is defined as heart attacks or strokes occurring in women younger than 65 years or men younger than 55.
- Family history. Family history is one of the biggest risk factors overall for atherosclerosis. Your risk is greater if your father or brother was diagnosed before age 55, if your mother or sister was diagnosed before age 65 or if you have a sibling with early coronary disease.
- Obesity. Obese women (body mass index of 30 kg/M2 or greater) are much more likely to develop heart-related problems, even if they have no other risk factors. Excess body weight in women is linked with coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and death from heart-related causes.
- Inactivity (sedentary lifestyle). Lack of regular physical activity contributes directly to heart-related problems and increases the likelihood that you'll develop other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Metabolic syndrome. Having three components of this deadly quintet of abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, glucose intolerance (or prediabetes), high triglycerides and low good (HDL) cholesterol is associated with a markedly increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
- High sensitivity C-Reactive protein (hs-CRP). An increased blood level of hs-CRP, a sign of inflammation, may mean that the walls of the arteries in your heart are inflamed, which may raise your heart disease risk.
- Pregnancy complications. The AHA Guidelines for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in Women include pregnancy complications such as hypertensive pregnancy disorders (preeclampsia, toxemia) and gestational diabetes as risk factors for cardiovascular disease in women.
- Systemic autoimmune diseases. Systemic autoimmune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are also risk factors for heart disease. These autoimmune disorders occur more frequently in women than men.
- Stress. Although stress has been implicated in the development of atherosclerosis, its exact relationship to heart disease has not been determined. Regular physical activity can reduce stress and improve your mood.
- Postmenopausal status. Your risk of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease increases once you reach menopause. Prior to menopause, women are mainly protected from heart disease by estrogen. Among its many roles, estrogen helps keep arteries free from plaque by improving the ratio of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and stimulates the release of nitric oxide, which relaxes vessel walls.
Heart Problems Commonly Experienced by Women
The following are common heart problems in women. If you experience any of the symptoms described below, contact your health care professional for an evaluation:
- Angina. If clogged arteries prevent enough oxygen-carrying blood from reaching your heart, the heart may respond with pain called angina pectoris, commonly called angina. Episodes of angina occur when the heart's need for oxygen increases beyond the oxygen available from the blood nourishing the heart. Microvascular angina, or coronary microvascular dysfunction, occurs when the small vessels feeding the heart muscle are not functioning properly, most often due to fluctuations in vessel wall narrowing, in the absence of significant blockages in the major heart arteries.
Physical exertion is the most common trigger for angina. Other triggers can be emotional stress, extreme cold or heat, heavy meals, alcohol and cigarette smoking. "Typical" angina is a pressing or squeezing pain felt in the chest, but "atypical" angina can be felt in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaws or back. Women more frequently have atypical angina than men. Women also more often have "non-anginal" symptoms of CHD, including shortness of breath, nausea and extreme fatigue.
People with angina have an increased risk of heart attack compared with those who have no angina symptoms. When the pattern of angina changes—if episodes become more frequent, last longer or occur at rest, without exertion—your risk of heart attack in subsequent days or weeks is much higher, and you should see your health care professional immediately.
If you have angina, learn its pattern—what causes an angina attack, what it feels like, how long episodes usually last and whether medication relieves the attack. Angina is usually relieved in a few minutes by resting or taking prescribed angina medicine, such as nitroglycerin.
Isolated episodes of angina seldom cause permanent damage to heart muscle; however, prolonged angina (more than 30 minutes) can signal a heart attack is occurring.
Heart attack pain is usually similar to angina, but in contrast to the symptoms of angina that quickly disappear with rest, heart attack pain persists despite resting or taking nitroglycerin and should be evaluated immediately. Like angina, heart attack pain can be a pressure or tightness in chest, arms, back or neck. Often symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting or dizziness. A heart attack is an emergency. A delay in treatment could mean more of the heart muscle tissue is permanently damaged. If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911 immediately and chew four baby aspirin or one full-strength aspirin, unless you are allergic to aspirin.
- Silent ischemia. Sometimes atherosclerosis causes no symptoms. Silent ischemia is a condition caused by atherosclerosis but isn't associated with chest pain or other angina symptoms. This condition occurs when arteries with atherosclerosis can't deliver enough blood to the heart, but for some reason, does not produce angina symptoms. An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), a measurement of electrical impulses produced by the heart, may indicate silent ischemia. However, without a heart checkup, a woman may never know that she has ischemia. This is why regular screening and checkups, particularly among women with heart disease risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension or a family history, are so important. People with diabetes are especially at risk for this condition because diabetes can cause nerve endings or "pain sensors" to be less sensitive, resulting in ischemia without accompanying pain.
- Heart attack. When the blood supply to the heart is cut off completely, the result is a heart attack. It can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle if blood flow is not restored as quickly as possible. Often, chest pain caused by a heart attack may also be accompanied by discomfort in other areas of the upper body, indigestion, nausea, weakness and sweating. However, heart attack symptoms vary and may be mild. According to the American Heart Association, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the symptoms other than chest pain, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Symptoms that indicate your heart is in danger may be present for months or years before a heart attack occurs. Persistent unusual symptoms—shortness of breath, nausea, extreme fatigue, angina/chest pain, fainting spells and gas-like discomfort—may be red flags for heart disease. Discuss such symptoms with your health care professional, even if the symptoms come and go.
If you are at high risk for a heart attack, it is a good idea to develop an action plan with your health care professional in case one occurs. This might include:
- Keeping with you a list of all medications and how often you take each one. Also give a copy to a friend or family member who might be involved with your care if you're taken to the hospital. This list provides valuable information to the emergency department staff.
- Keeping a small-sized copy of your most recent ECG in your wallet.
- Knowing who should be notified in case of an emergency.
- Microvascular disease. Also known as coronary microvascular dysfunction or small vessel disease, this is a disease of the smaller blood vessels and is characterized by chest pain or ischemia without evidence of blockage in the large (epicardial) coronary arteries. Women are at higher risk than men for this condition. Microvascular disease may be caused when the small blood vessels in the heart don't expand enough due to abnormalities in the function of the endothelium (the layer of cells lining blood vessels). Perimenopausal and postmenopausal women appear to be at increased risk for experiencing symptoms of microvascular disease because their declining estrogen levels may affect the small blood vessels in their hearts.
Because this condition is a small vessel disease, it can't be seen on an angiogram (an X-ray with dye that identifies blockages in the larger blood vessels). Special imaging tests, such as PET scanning or MRI, may help with the diagnosis in the future. Today, however, microvascular disease is often a diagnosis of exclusion—meaning you may be diagnosed with this condition after tests provide no other cause for the chest pain. The same tests done to diagnose CAD, such as an ECG, echocardiogram or coronary angiogram, are usually used to diagnose microvascular disease. In addition, special chemical (coronary physiology) tests of the coronary blood vessels can be done at the time of the angiogram. Most women with microvascular disease have at least one risk factor for CHD, but it can occur in women who are otherwise healthy.
Medications commonly used to treat CHD conditions may help to relieve pain caused by microvascular disease. Symptoms can be debilitating and, if left untreated, women with persistent angina due to microvascular disease have a poorer prognosis than women who do not have persistent angina. Their risk factors should be managed similarly to someone who has CHD.
- Cardiac arrhythmias. The normal cardiac rhythm is called "sinus rhythm" and the normal heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. An arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats irregularly or abnormally slow (bradycardia) or fast (tachycardia). While many arrhythmias don't cause symptoms, some cause chest pain, dizziness, fainting and shortness of breath. Atherosclerosis, angina, valvular heart disease, weakened heart muscle (i.e., cardiomyopathy), blood clots, thyroid abnormalities or heart attack can cause this condition.
Medications can help stabilize heart rhythms. Abstaining from caffeine, alcohol and cigarette smoking may help. Pacemakers may be recommended to correct a slow heart rhythm.
Assessing Your Own Risk of Heart Disease
Because heart disease and its risk factors can be silent for so long, often with few symptoms until the disease is well under way, it's important to know your personal risk factors. That includes knowing your family health history and your cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Over the last two decades, researchers have identified many modifiable risk factors for developing cardiovascular diseases. They include:
- Elevated cholesterol levels (both total cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol)
- Elevated triglyceride levels
- Low HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol, which clears away artery-clogging LDL cholesterol—the "bad" cholesterol)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Cigarette smoking
- Diabetes (elevated blood sugar)
No matter what your age, if you suspect you have heart disease or are at risk of heart disease, talk to your health care professional about diagnostic stress testing, which is done using the ECG and may involve echocardiography or nuclear imaging of the heart.
Be sure to discuss your risks for heart disease with your health care professional during regular checkups. If you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, tell your health care professional about them all—when each started, how often it happens and if it has been getting worse. Also note any stresses in your life, such as taking care of a sick parent or partner.
Standard cardiac screening is not as accurate at diagnosing women's heart conditions as it has been for evaluating men's symptoms. A treadmill or stress test, also known as an exercise ECG (electrocardiogram), records the heart's electrical impulses under exertion. There are limitations, however, to the accuracy of these tests, including that they may report a blockage where none exists, particularly in young women. Older women may not be able to reach the exercise intensity necessary on the treadmill to detect any restricted blood flow. In that case, a "chemical" stress test using imaging with echocardiography (no radiation) or nuclear medicine (radiation) can be performed.
All testing should be individualized, and the best approach may be a combination of tests to evaluate symptoms.
An examination for heart disease may include the following tests:
An ECG (or EKG) is a graphic record of the electrical activity of the heart as it contracts and rests. To record the ECG, a technician positions a number of small contacts on your arms, legs and chest to connect them to an ECG machine. An ECG can detect arrhythmias and heart damage, inadequate blood flow and heart muscle thickening.
For many women with angina, the ECG at rest is normal. This is not surprising because the symptoms of angina occur during stress. Therefore, the functioning of the heart may be tested under stress, typically exercise. In the simplest stress test, the ECG is taken before, during and after exercise to look for stress-related abnormalities. Blood pressure and heart rate are also measured during the stress test and symptoms are noted.
An echocardiogram uses ultrasound to evaluate the shape, structure and strength of the heart muscle and detect any areas of weakness that occur during stress (treadmill exercise or chemical stress). It can assess the heart's pumping and relaxing functions, as well as heart valve functions and other information. This test is noninvasive and can be performed at rest and during exertion.
Nuclear scanning is sometimes used to show damaged areas of the heart and expose problems with the heart's pumping action. A small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a vein, usually in the arm. A scanning camera records the nuclear material that is taken up by the heart muscle (healthy areas) or not taken up (damaged areas). An initial test is recorded while resting; a second test while you perform near maximum intensity on the treadmill. After exercise or chemical stress, a scan is taken of the heart muscle, showing areas of decreased blood supply.
Coronary angiography is a test used to outline the coronary arteries. A fluid that appears on X-rays (a "contrast medium" or "dye") is injected through a fine tube (catheter) put into an artery of an arm or leg and passed into the heart. The heart and blood vessels are then filmed while the heart pumps. The picture that results, called an angiogram or arteriogram, shows problems such as a blockage caused by atherosclerosis. This is the most accurate way to assess the presence and severity of coronary disease.
Computerized tomography angiography (CTA) is a recently developed specialized X-ray test that can be used to look at the coronary arteries for blockages using an intravenous, instead of intracoronary, injection of contrast dye. This test is most useful when the doctor does not think there is a high likelihood of there being blockages in the coronary arteries, since it is not as accurate as the standard coronary angiogram.
- High sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) blood test. This blood test detects a protein that becomes elevated in response to inflammation, called high-sensitivity (hs) C-reactive protein (CRP). Inflammation is associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis although it is not clear if it actually causes the disease. Current guidelines from the American Heart Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting the use of the hs-CRP test as a discretionary tool for evaluating people at intermediate risk and not using it as a means of screening the entire adult population because there is insufficient scientific evidence supporting widespread use at this time.
For more information on hs-CRP, visit the American Heart Association's website.
Diagnosing a Heart Attack
Heart attack symptoms may not be sudden or dramatic like in the movies, so don't wait until symptoms are severe or unbearable. The warning signs of a heart attack are:
Discomfort that spreads from the chest to the shoulders, neck and arms
Pressure or squeezing pain in the chest that may spread into the neck, shoulders and arms
Nausea, breathlessness, sweating or fainting with pain in the arms, chest or neck
Feelings of impending doom
Weakness in the arms
If you have heart disease, you should know the symptoms of a heart attack so you can get immediate medical help if symptoms occur. Not all heart attacks begin with sudden, crushing chest pain, especially for women, for whom heart attack symptoms often are milder and less specific.
If a heart attack is suspected, doctors will order a blood test to test for changes in certain enzymes in the bloodstream and an electrocardiogram to test for any disruption to the heart's electrical impulses. One such blood test, cardiac troponin testing, detects changed levels of troponin, a protein that leaks from the heart muscle when it is damaged. Troponins almost always rises in people who have had a heart attack, but levels of the enzyme can also be elevated for other reasons. Your health care professional may perform other tests to exclude other medical conditions.
Coronary heart disease (CHD) is treated in a number of ways, depending on its severity. For many women, CHD is managed with lifestyle changes and medications. Others may need more invasive procedures or perhaps even surgery. In any case, once CHD develops, it requires lifelong management.
Although great advances have been made in treating CHD, changing your lifestyle habits remains the single most effective way to stop the disease from progressing.
Smoking. Smoking is the number one preventable cause of CHD. Quitting smoking dramatically and immediately lowers the risk of a heart attack and reduces the risk of a second heart attack in people who have already had one.
Diet. If you don't smoke, changing your dietary habits is the best way to stop atherosclerosis from progressing to coronary heart disease. Changing your diet to one low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol reduces blood cholesterol, a primary cause of atherosclerosis. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, endorsed by the major heart organizations, is one strategy for lowering high blood pressure. It is low in sodium and includes lower-calorie, higher-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, nuts, low saturated-fat dairy products and whole grains. Some large studies point to the Mediterranean-style diet as a complementary pattern of eating to reduce your risk of heart disease. The Mediterranean eating pattern focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and it includes olive oil as a significant source of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and wine in low to moderate amounts. The major protein sources are dairy, fish and poultry, with minimal red meat. Several recent major studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can lower risk for heart attacks and diabetes.
Exercise. You also can benefit from regular physical activity. Recent research finds that even moderate physical activity is associated with lower death rates from coronary heart disease. As little as 30 minutes of moderate activity on at least five, and preferably all, days of the week helps protect the heart and is recommended by the American Heart Association. If you exercise vigorously, you can lower the amount of time you spend exercising to 25 minutes per day at least three days per week. If you do a combination of moderate and vigorous exercise, you can meet somewhere in the middle. Examples of moderate activity are brisk walking, bicycling, raking leaves and gardening. Vigorous exercise includes running, jogging, swimming laps and cross-country skiing. Being physically fit and active provides cardiovascular benefits independent of weight loss. For additional health benefits, the American Heart Association recommends moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days a week.
Weight loss. If you are overweight (body mass index [BMI] 25 to 29 kg/M2), or obese (BMI 30 kg/M2 or greater), losing weight can help lower blood cholesterol levels, blood sugar and blood pressure. It is the most effective lifestyle change to decrease the risk for high blood pressure and diabetes, which are all risk factors for atherosclerosis and heart disease. The best way to lose weight is through a combination of diet and exercise, emphasizing healthy food choices, portion control and an active lifestyle.
Medications for CHD
In addition to lifestyle changes, medications are prescribed according to the type of CHD you have, how serious it is and other health conditions you may have. The symptoms of angina can generally be controlled by beta-blocker drugs that decrease the workload on the heart, by nitrates (including nitroglycerin) that dilate the arteries, by calcium channel blockers (CCBs) that relax the arteries, and by other classes of drugs.
The tendency to form clots can be reduced by taking aspirin or by other drugs called platelet inhibitors and anticoagulant drugs. Beta blockers, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers and statins, have also been shown to reduce the risk of recurrent heart attack.
Medications Prescribed for Heart Disease
The most common medications prescribed for those with heart disease are:
Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers. These drugs stop production of a chemical that makes blood vessels narrow. They are primarily used to reduce blood pressure and help the heart heal when it has been damaged. There is evidence they may also reduce the risk of having a second heart attack. Research finds that using ACE inhibitors during pregnancy, especially after the first three months, can cause low blood pressure, severe kidney failure, too much potassium or even death in the newborn. Therefore, it is important that you check with your doctor immediately if you are taking these drugs and think you may be pregnant.
Aspirin. Low-dose aspirin, 81 mg daily, helps prevent heart attacks when taken daily upon the recommendation of a health care professional. Today, the American Heart Association and United States Preventive Task Force recommend people at high risk of heart attack (greater than 10 percent 10-year risk) take a daily low-dose aspirin if they are not at high bleeding risk and their health care provider recommends it. Heart attack survivors should regularly take low-dose aspirin.
For women on aspirin therapy, it doesn't take much to get the benefits. Studies find that between 75 and 100 milligrams, known as "low-dose aspirin therapy," is enough to reduce the risk for heart attack or angina. Most aspirin brands come in low-dose formulations of 81 mg.
Aspirin's cardioprotective benefits stem from its unique ability to interfere with the blood cells that are responsible for forming sticky clots.
Aspirin has a downside, however. Because it acts on the overall system that affects bleeding, aspirin increases the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, either from an ulcer or gastritis, and the risk of a rare but dangerous form of stroke caused not by a blood clot, but by bleeding in the brain.
Anticoagulants (warfarin; "novel oral anticoagulants"). Warfarin drugs, known by brand names including Coumadin and Jantoven, and a new class of anticoagulant drugs called novel oral anticoagulants, including the brand names Pradaxa, Xarelto, Eliquis and Savaysa, protect against stroke due to atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm) by reducing the risk of blood clots.
Beta blockers. These drugs reduce the heart's workload and are used for high blood pressure and chest pain and to prevent a repeat heart attack.
Blood cholesterol-lowering agents.
Cholesterol-lowering medications that may be recommended include:
- Statins. Numerous statin drugs are available in the United States including atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor, Altoprev), pravastatin (Pravachol), simvastatin (Zocor), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and pitavastatin (Livalo). These highly effective drugs can significantly reduce LDL cholesterol levels. They also provide the added benefits of some increase in HDL cholesterol, some reduction in triglyceride levels and a decrease in the inflammation in the blood vessel linings that can lead to CHD. Make sure you talk about any potential side effects from statins with your health care provider. If you start to experience any side effects such as muscle aches or dark urine, stop taking the drug immediately and call your health care professional.
Bile acid sequestrants. The three main bile acid sequestrants currently prescribed in the United States are cholestyramine sucrose (Questran), colestipol (Colestid) and colesevelam (WelChol). They mildly lower LDL cholesterol and are available as powders, tablets or granules. When combined with statins, they can lower LDL cholesterol even more. These drugs work by binding with bile acids that contain cholesterol in the intestines. They can be prescribed alone or in combination with a statin. A bile acid sequestrant may also be prescribed in combination with another drug if you have high triglycerides or a history of severe constipation.
Fibrates. These drugs work by reducing triglycerides and raising HDL cholesterol. Fibrate medications include gemfibrozil (Lopid), fenofibrate (TriCor) and clofibrate (Atromid-S). Fibrates are not recommended as the sole drug therapy for women with heart disease for whom LDL cholesterol reduction is the main goal. They might be useful in patients who have achieved their LDL goal, but have "residual risk" due to elevated triglycerides or low HDL, but this an area of continuing controversy.
Cholesterol absorption inhibitors. This class of drugs lowers cholesterol by preventing it from being absorbed in the intestine. The only approved drug in this class is ezetimibe (Zetia). Studies find it works to lower LDL cholesterol and may also have modest effects on lowering triglycerides and raising HDL cholesterol. Zetia may work best in combination with a statin, providing a dual mechanism for reducing cholesterol levels. Since Zetia has not been proven to prevent heart attacks, the use of this drug should be reserved for women who are already on a maximally tolerated statin and who need more lipid lowering, or who do not tolerate statins.
PCSK9 inhibitors. This is a recently approved class of cholesterol-lowering drugs that are monoclonal antibodies that markedly lower LDL cholesterol by inactivating a specific protein in the liver. They are very expensive, must be injected and are currently indicated only for those patients with severely increased LDL levels (associated with familial hyperlipidemia) or with severe statin intolerance.
Calcium-channel blockers. These drugs reduce the heart's pumping strength and relax blood vessels. They are used for high blood pressure and chest pain.
Digitalis. This drug makes the heart contract harder. It's used when the heart's pumping function is weak and to slow some fast heart rhythms.
Diuretics. These drugs reduce fluid buildup in the body and are used for high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
Nitrate (including nitroglycerin). These drugs relax blood vessels and alleviate chest pain.
Medications for Heart Attack—the Sooner, the Better
If you are taken to the hospital with a heart attack, thrombolytic (clot dissolving) medications, such as streptokinase and tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), may be injected to restore blood flow, but they should be administered within three to six hours, before extensive damage has occurred. Ideally, urgent treatment with coronary angioplasty and stents should be performed. The sooner you get to a hospital for treatment, the better the chances are of preventing extensive damage to the heart.
Other Treatments for Heart Disease
Many women can control CHD with lifestyle changes and medication, but other treatments, including nonsurgical (catheter-based angioplasties and stents) and surgical (coronary bypass), may be recommended if you continue to have frequent or disabling angina despite the use of medications or if you are found to have many severe blockages in your coronary arteries.
- Coronary angioplasty or balloon angioplasty. This always begins with coronary angiography. While the goal of coronary angiography is to show the presence, location and severity of blockages caused by atherosclerosis, coronary angioplasty goes a step further. During this procedure, the catheter positioned in the narrowed coronary artery has a tiny balloon at its tip. The balloon is inflated and deflated to stretch or break open the narrowed artery and improve blood flow. The balloon-tipped catheter is then removed. Sometimes a small flexible structure called a stent is left in place to keep the artery open.
Strictly speaking, angioplasty is not surgery. It is done while you are awake, although most often sedated, and may require one to two hours. If angioplasty does not widen the artery, if there are too many artery narrowings or if complications occur, bypass surgery may be needed. Also, if you are diabetic, with multiple coronary artery narrowings, bypass surgery may be preferable.
One continuing challenge cardiologists face in treating atherosclerosis is that plaque deposits may return (a condition referred to as restenosis). Even people who've had angioplasties sometimes require future treatments to widen arteries clogged with new blockage. Today, drug-coated (drug-eluting) stents markedly decrease the rates of restenosis compared to the older generation of stents—called bare-metal stents.
The FDA considers both types of stents to be safe and effective in most people. However, all stents involve some risk, and the drug-eluting stents appear to come with a slightly increased risk of blood clots when compared with bare-metal stents. Drug-eluting stents are better at preventing restenosis, but patients who receive these types of stents need to be on the antiplatelet medications, including aspirin and stronger drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix), ticagrelor (Brilinta) or prasugrel (Effient) just before and for at least a year after the stent can has been put in place. Therefore, bare-metal stents may be a better choice if you can't take antiplatelet medication long-term due to an upcoming scheduled surgery or an increased risk of bleeding problems. With bare-metal stents, you only need to take the antiplatelet medications for about a month. Overall, stents are one of the best treatments for heart attack and unstable angina, but medicines and good control of risk factors can be just as effective in elective situations, if your condition is not an emergency. Discuss all your options with your doctor.
Atherectomy. Coronary atherectomy is a procedure that removes plaque from the arteries that supply the heart muscle using a rotating shaver or laser catheter. Atherectomy may be followed with stenting or balloon angioplasty.
Coronary artery bypass. During this procedure, a blood vessel, usually taken from the leg, arm or chest, is grafted from the aorta onto the blocked artery, bypassing the blocked area. If more than one artery is blocked, several bypasses can be performed. This enables the blood to go around the obstruction and supply the heart with enough blood to relieve chest pain and prevent a heart attack. Bypass surgery relieves symptoms of heart disease but does not cure it. You will typically need to take medications and make changes in your lifestyle after the operation.
The American Heart Association (AHA) released guidelines in 2011 for preventing cardiovascular disease in women age 20 and older. While some of the guidelines deal with medication—when to prescribe, how much, the best choices—many deal with lifestyle changes that study after study have shown are effective at lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol levels, minimizing atherosclerosis and, overall, reducing a woman's risk of developing heart disease, based on her individual cardiovascular health.
Here's the rundown on what you can do to reduce your risks for developing heart disease:
Quit smoking. Women who smoke are two to six times as likely to suffer a heart attack as nonsmoking women, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Smokers who have a heart attack are more likely to die and die suddenly (within an hour) than are nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease. Constant exposure to other people's smoke—called environmental tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke or passive smoking—increases the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers. And, of course, smoking also increases your risk for developing lung and other cancers.
The good news is that quitting dramatically cuts the risk to your heart, even during the first year, no matter what your age. Even if you've had a heart attack, you'll benefit from quitting—some women's risk of having a second heart attack is cut by 50 percent or more after they stop smoking. The 2011 guidelines recommend that women use nicotine replacement or other forms of pharmacotherapy in conjunction with a behavioral program or other formal smoking cessation program to help them quit.
Lower your blood pressure. Even slightly high blood pressure levels can double your risk for coronary heart disease. High blood pressure also increases your chance of stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. The higher the pressure, the higher the risk. According to the American Heart Association, about one in three Americans age 20 and older have hypertension, and nearly half are women. Until age 45, a higher percentage of men have high blood pressure. From age 45 to 64, rates are about equal between men and women. After that, a much higher percentage of women have high blood pressure than men. High blood pressure is more common and more severe in African-American women. Unfortunately, even in women who are aware of a diagnosis of hypertension, a large number do not have their blood pressure controlled to desirable levels.
Blood pressure is considered high when it stays at or above 140/90 mm Hg over a period of time, but you are considered at risk for hypertension if you have prehypertension, which means your blood pressure is between 120/80 and 139/89 mm Hg.
You should have your blood pressure checked whenever you visit a health care professional. At minimum, every two years for women over age 20; more frequently if borderline-high or high blood pressure is indicated or if you have a family history of high blood pressure. Because blood pressure is so variable, it should be checked on several different days before a high blood pressure diagnosis is made. Talk to your health care professional about how often you should have your blood pressure checked.
The AHA prevention guidelines for women recommend drug therapy when blood pressure is 140/90 or above. Drug therapy is recommended at even lower blood pressure levels if you have blood-pressure related organ damage or diabetes.
If your blood pressure is only mildly elevated, you may be able to control it entirely through weight loss (if you are overweight), regular physical activity, eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products and cutting down on alcohol, fat and salt or sodium. Sodium is an ingredient found in many packaged foods, carbonated beverages, baking soda and some antacids. You can reduce the sodium in your diet by limiting the amount of table salt you add to your food; avoiding canned vegetables and using fresh or frozen vegetables instead; and checking food labels for sodium content.
Using birth control pills may increase blood pressure in some women.
Lower your blood cholesterol level. Today, nearly 32 percent of Americans have high low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is a major cause of coronary heart disease.
Talk to your health care professional about how often you should have your cholesterol level tested.
For most people, cutting back on foods high in saturated and trans fat and cholesterol will lower both total and LDL cholesterol.
Both the AHA and the National Cholesterol Education Program offer specially designed cholesterol-lowering diets. Ask your health care professional for more information or visit their websites: www.heart.org and www.nhlbi.nih.gov.
Regular physical activity and weight loss for overweight persons also will lower blood cholesterol levels. Losing extra weight, quitting smoking and becoming more physically active may help boost your HDL cholesterol levels.
Lose weight. Overweight and obese women are much more likely to develop heart-related problems, even if they have no other risk factors. Excess body weight in women is linked with coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and death from heart-related causes. The more overweight you are, the higher your risk for heart disease. Being overweight contributes not only to cardiovascular diseases, but also to other risk factors, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes. Fortunately, these conditions often can be controlled with weight loss and regular physical activity.
Body shape as well as weight may affect heart health. "Apple-shaped" individuals with extra fat at the waistline may have a higher risk than "pear-shaped" people with heavy hips and thighs. If your waist is nearly as large as, or larger than, the size of your hips, you may have a higher risk for coronary heart disease.
Ideally, the AHA preventive guidelines for women recommend women maintain/achieve a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 and a waist circumference of less than 35 inches. You can calculate your BMI, a measurement that considers height and weight, online.
For lasting weight loss, engage in regular, brisk physical activity and eat foods that are low in calories and fat. Do not try to lose more than one half to one pound a week.
Adjust your diet to include a variety of low-calorie, nutritious foods in moderate amounts from the basic food groups. Include pasta, rice, bread and other whole-grain foods, as well as fruits and vegetables, and keep other foods low in saturated fat. Unsaturated fats, as found in tree nuts and avocados, can be helpful because they can provide a sensation of fullness, while providing good nutrition. However, portions do matter, and excess calories need to be avoided. Also, keep in mind that many low–saturated-fat food products are loaded with sugar and therefore high in calories.
Increase physical activity. Physical inactivity increases the risk of heart disease. It contributes directly to heart-related problems and increases the chances of developing other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Fortunately, it doesn't take a lot of effort to become physically active. As little as 30 minutes of moderate activity at least five, and preferably all, days of the week, or 25 minutes of vigorous exercise at least three days a week helps protect the heart and is recommended by the AHA. Examples of moderate activity are brisk walking, bicycling, raking leaves and gardening. Vigorous exercise includes running, jogging, swimming laps and cross-country skiing.
If you have heart disease, regular, moderate physical activity lowers the risk of death from heart-related causes. However, if you have heart disease, check with your doctor first to find out what kinds of activities are best for you. Cardiac Rehabilitation programs are especially useful in patients with known heart disease, so be sure to discuss that with your health care provider and get a referral.
Once you get started, keep these guidelines in mind:
Go slowly. Before each session, take five minutes for stretching and slow movement to warm up, and at the end of the session, take five minutes to cool down with a slower pace.
Listen to your body. Some stiffness is normal at first, but if you hurt a joint or pull a muscle or tendon, stop the activity for several days to avoid more serious injury.
Pay attention to warning signals. While physical activity can strengthen your heart, some types of activity may worsen existing heart problems. Warning signals include sudden dizziness, cold sweat, paleness, fainting or pain or pressure in your upper body during or after engaging in physical activity. If you notice any of these signs, call your health care professional or 911 immediately.
Keep at it. Unless you have to stop your exercise program for health reasons, stick with it. If you feel like giving up because you think you're not going as fast or as far as you should, set smaller, short-term goals. If you're getting bored, try engaging in an activity with a friend or switch to another activity.
Be aware of diabetes. Diabetes, or high blood sugar, is a serious metabolic disorder that raises the risk of coronary heart disease. People with diabetes often have accelerated atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque in their arteries, meaning they develop the condition faster than those without diabetes who have other similar risk factors.
Women with diabetes often aren't aware of their significantly increased risk for heart disease. In fact, women with diabetes are at increased risk for high blood pressure and cholesterol, both of which raise their overall risk of heart disease and stroke.
While there is no cure for diabetes, it can be controlled. The most important first step is getting the right diagnosis. If you have diabetes, you should be treated as intensively as people with heart disease in terms of medication and lifestyle changes.
Additionally, good control of your diabetes is important. The AHA preventive guidelines for women recommend that lifestyle and medication be used to achieve A1C levels of less than 7 percent (normal is less than 6 percent). A1C is a measure of blood sugar levels over time. People with diabetes should also work with their health care professionals to get their blood pressure under 130/80.
Finally, if you take birth control pills and have diabetes or insulin resistance, you should have regular blood sugar tests because contraceptive hormones can alter glucose levels.
Decrease stress. In recent years, we have heard a lot about the connection between stress and heart disease. Some common ways of coping with stress, such as overeating, heavy drinking and smoking, are clearly bad for your heart. Studies continue to investigate the direct effects of stress on your heart.
The good news is that sensible health habits can have a protective effect. Regular physical activity not only relieves stress, but also can directly lower your risk of heart disease. Also, participating in a stress management program following a heart attack lowers the chances of further heart-related problems.
Follow a heart healthy diet. Avoiding or limiting saturated fat and cholesterol from the foods you eat can help lower cholesterol and reduce the calories contributed to your diet by fat. Up to 35 percent of total daily calories can come from fat, provided most of these calories are from unsaturated fat, which doesn't raise cholesterol. Also limit your sodium intake to no more than 2,000 mg per day.
The guidelines encourage eating foods rich in soluble fiber to boost the diet's LDL-lowering power. In addition, the AHA recommends women limit their intake of trans fatty acids.
Recently, low-fat diets have come under scrutiny, primarily because of excess sugar. The Mediterranean-style diet, which emphasizes eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but includes a higher percentage of unsaturated fats, primarily from the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil is recommended. Importantly, saturated fats are low in the Mediterranean-style diet.
Saturated fat is found mainly in food that comes from animals. Whole-milk dairy products such as butter, cheese, milk, cream and ice cream all contain high amounts of saturated fat. The fat in meat and poultry skin is also loaded with saturated fat. A few vegetable fats—coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm kernel oil and palm oil—are high in saturated fat. These fats are sometimes found in cookies, crackers, coffee creamers, whipped toppings and snack foods. Remember: Saturated fat boosts your blood cholesterol level more than anything else in your diet.
While unsaturated fat does not raise cholesterol levels, like all fats it has nine calories per gram. Polyunsaturated fat (found in many cooking and salad oils, such as safflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, sesame and sunflower oils, and in some margarine) and monounsaturated fat (found in olive, canola and peanut oils) are examples of unsaturated fats.
Foods that contribute cholesterol to your diet primarily come from animal sources. Egg yolks and organ meats (liver, for example) are very high in cholesterol. While the most recent guidelines do not put a numerical limit on daily consumption of cholesterol, eating excessive amounts of cholesterol-containing foods is discouraged.
In addition to the above recommendations, the AHA recommends that women with high cholesterol, and especially with high triglycerides, include plenty of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. You can get omega-3 fatty acids by eating two servings per week of fatty fish, such as tuna, mackerel or salmon, or by taking fish oil supplements. Don't take more than three grams a day without checking with your health care provider.
Below are some practical tips for managing your diet:
Choose lean cuts of meat, and remove fats from meats and skin from chicken before cooking. Eat up to six ounces per day.
Broil, bake, roast or poach foods rather than fry them.
Cut down on sausage, bacon and processed high-fat cold cuts.
Limit organ meats such as liver, kidney or brains.
Eat two servings of fatty fish, such as mackerel, tuna or salmon, per week.
Instead of whole milk or cream, drink skim or 1 percent milk. Try nonfat or low-fat yogurt in place of sour cream. Use nonfat or low-fat cheeses. Substitute sherbet and nonfat or low-fat frozen yogurt for ice cream.
Instead of butter, use olive oil or liquid vegetable oils high in poly- or monounsaturated fats. All fats and oils should be used sparingly.
Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits (five to nine servings per day)
Consume cereals, breads, rice and pasta made from whole grains (for example, rye bread, whole-wheat spaghetti and bran cereal) in moderation. These foods are good sources of starch and fiber and usually contain no cholesterol and little or no saturated fat.
Choose liquid vegetable oils for sautéing vegetables, browning potatoes, popping corn and making baked goods, pancakes and waffles. Use small amounts or try a vegetable oil cooking spray.
Heart Disease Prevention for Women with Cardiovascular Disease
The AHA preventive guidelines make several recommendations for women who have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, including:
Cardiac rehabilitation. Women who have recently had a heart attack, a coronary intervention such as angioplasty or bypass surgery or heart failure should participate in some form of cardiac rehabilitation. Cardiac rehabilitation is a medically supervised program to help heart patients recover quickly and improve their overall physical and mental functioning. The goal is to reduce the risk of another cardiac event or to keep an already present heart condition from getting worse. Programs include counseling, exercise, help with identifying and modifying risk factors and returning to work, as well as lending emotional support.
However, several studies find that women are underrepresented in such programs and do not get referred as often as men, even though the results are just as good for women as for men. It is very important to discuss cardiac rehabilitation with your health care provider to make sure you get a referral to a program that is convenient to you.
Evaluation for depression. Women with cardiovascular disease should be evaluated for depression and referred for therapy when necessary. Studies find that depression along with cardiovascular disease can increase the risk of complications and death.
Other Approaches to Heart Disease Prevention
Alcohol use. If you drink, do so in moderation. This means one drink per day and for men, two drinks per day. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or one and one-half ounces of 80-proof liquor.
If you are a nondrinker, this is not a recommendation to start using alcohol. And certainly, if you are pregnant or have another health condition that could make alcohol use harmful, you should not drink.
Remember, moderation is the key. More than two drinks per day can raise blood pressure, and binge drinking can lead to stroke. People who drink heavily on a regular basis have higher rates of heart disease than moderate drinkers or nondrinkers.
Aspirin. The research on aspirin is promising. Aspirin may help to both prevent heart attacks in older healthy women and treat heart attacks in women who have already had them.
Aspirin also reduces the chances that women who have already had a heart attack or stroke will have, or die from, another one. If taken quickly, aspirin may also increase the chances of survival after a heart attack. The AHA guidelines for women recommend that women who are at high risk of coronary heart disease take a daily aspirin (or clopidogrel, brand name Plavix, if they can't take aspirin). Discuss this option with your doctor. In addition, the AHA 2011 updated guidelines for women state that routine low-dose aspirin therapy may be considered in women age 65 or older, regardless of their risk of cardiovascular disease, if blood pressure is controlled and the benefit for ischemic stroke and heart attack prevention is likely to outweigh the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding or hemorrhagic stroke.
Keep in mind that aspirin is a powerful drug with many side effects. It can increase your chances of getting ulcers, kidney disease, liver disease and a stroke from a hemorrhage. Because of these serious risks, you should not take aspirin to either prevent or treat a heart attack without first discussing it with your health care professional. It may be recommended, depending in part on your age and your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids. More and more research suggests that consuming fish and fish oil supplements (omega-3 fatty acids) can lower the risk of CHD and death from CHD. In fact, the AHA recommends that women with high cholesterol and/or high triglycerides supplement their diet with omega-3 fatty acids. Women can get omega-3 fatty acids by eating two servings of fatty fish, such as tuna, mackerel or salmon, per week, as well as taking fish oil supplements. Women with documented heart disease should consume about 1 gram of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per day, preferably from oily fish. However, EPA and DHA supplements may be considered after they have cleared them with their health care professionals. Women with elevated triglycerides may need 2 to 4 grams of EPA and DHA per day provided in supplements under the care of a health care professional.
Despite past warnings about seafood and mercury content, a report released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) showed that the heart benefits of seafood outweigh the risks in infants as well as in adults. As a result, they recommend that women eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week. Pregnant women, however, should avoid eating fish with the potential for the highest levels of mercury, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tile fish.
Facts to Know
According to the American Heart Association, every year nearly 500,000 American women die of cardiovascular disease, making it the number one killer of American women.
The AHA reports that 26 percent of women age 45 and older will die within a year of a heart attack, compared with only 19 percent of men.
African-American women are more likely to die of CHD than Caucasian women. African-American women have greater incidence of high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which increase the risk of heart disease. They are more likely to die from stroke and heart attacks than Caucasian women. Heart disease risk is also higher among Mexican Americans, Native Americans and native Hawaiians. This is partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in these ethnic groups.
Coronary heart disease is a disease of the heart's blood vessels that, if untreated, can cause heart attacks. Like any muscle, the heart needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients, which are carried to it by the blood in the coronary arteries. When the coronary arteries become narrowed or clogged and cannot supply enough blood to the heart, CHD results.
Menopausal hormone therapy—previously known as hormone replacement therapy—once was prescribed for preventing heart disease in addition to treating menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. But, findings from the Women's Health Initiative suggest that some forms of menopausal hormone therapy increase a woman's risk of cardiovascular disease, especially if started long after the menopause has onset, rather than prevent it. Currently, health experts recommend against prescribing hormone therapy for prevention of heart disease. However, there does not appear to be any increased risk for developing CHD, if hormone therapy is started early on in menopause for very bothersome menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes.
Smoking is one of the major risk factors for coronary artery disease. Women who smoke are two to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmoking women, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Smokers who have a heart attack are more likely to die and die suddenly (within an hour) than are nonsmokers. Cigarette smoking also acts with other risk factors to greatly increase the risk for coronary heart disease, such as atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries").
Even slightly elevated blood pressure increases your risk for coronary heart disease. High blood pressure also increases your chance of stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. According to the AHA, one in three Americans age 20 and older have hypertension, and nearly half are women. High blood pressure is more common and more severe in African-American women.
About one in three women need to lower their blood cholesterol, High blood cholesterol levels pose a serious risk for coronary heart disease—a result of atherosclerosis.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. This means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men. One drink equals 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine, or 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof liquor. Drinking more than this increases your risk for high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, breast cancer, suicide, accidents and alcoholism.
Overweight women are much more likely to develop heart-related problems than women who aren't. Obesity is linked with coronary heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and death from heart-related causes. The more overweight you are, the higher your risk for heart disease.
Questions to Ask
Review the following Questions to Ask about heart disease so you're prepared to discuss this important health issue with your health care professional.
What tests should I have, and how often, to monitor my risk factors for developing heart disease or other cardiovascular diseases?
What do my test results mean? Do I have heart disease?
What sort of treatment plan do you recommend?
Am I at high risk for heart-related complications if I take birth control pills?
What are the possible side effects of medications I've been prescribed?
What should I do if I experience chest pain or if I think I'm having a heart attack?
How can I tell the difference between angina and a heart attack?
Is it safe for postmenopausal women to use hormone therapy?
What lifestyle changes can I make to improve my cardiovascular health?
Should I take aspirin to help prevent a heart attack? If so, how much and how often?
What's the difference between angina and a heart attack?
An episode of angina is not a heart attack. When blood flow to the heart is reduced, chest pain, or angina, can result. If blood flow is nearly or completely blocked, a heart attack can occur, killing muscle cells in the heart. Angina usually disappears with rest or medicine, such as nitroglycerin, while a heart attack requires much more intensive therapy in a hospital. If the pain is severe or doesn't go away, or if the symptoms are those of a heart attack, call 911 and get evaluated at a nearby hospital emergency room.
I've been smoking for a long time—isn't it too late to quit?
The good news is that quitting dramatically cuts the risk to your heart, even during the first year, no matter what your age or how long you've been smoking. Even if you've had a heart attack, you'll benefit from quitting—estimates suggest that a woman's risk of having a second heart attack is cut by 50 percent or more after she stops smoking. Recent AHA guidelines recommend counseling, nicotine replacement and other forms of therapy to help women stop smoking.
What's the connection between estrogen and heart disease?
Prior to menopause, naturally circulating estrogen in a woman's body may help keep her arteries free from atherosclerotic plaque (the buildup of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste and other material) by improving the ratio of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Estrogen increases the amount of HDL cholesterol, which helps to clear the arteries of LDL cholesterol—the kind that contributes to plaque. Estrogen also helps keep the lining of blood vessels strong and pliable.
Do birth control pills cause cardiovascular problems?
Oral contraceptives used to have much higher doses of estrogen than they do today. Such pills increased the risk of vascular and heart disease, especially among women who smoked. American women today typically use pills that have 35 micrograms of estrogen or less. There is a small risk of heart disease for premenopausal women using a pill that has up to 50 micrograms of estrogen. However, even the lower-dose pills carry a risk of increasing blood pressure, and if you have any cardiovascular symptoms or conditions, or if you have diabetes or insulin resistance, be sure to discuss those conditions with a health care professional before starting the medication. Also make sure your health care professional knows if you smoke. Even with the low-dose pill, smoking boosts the risks of serious cardiovascular problems, particularly in women over 35. Bottom line: You should not smoke and take birth control pills.
What foods are unhealthy for my heart?
Avoiding saturated fat and cholesterol is important in a heart-healthy diet, especially if you already have heart disease. Saturated fat is found mainly in food that comes from animals. Whole-milk dairy products such as butter, cheese, milk, cream and ice cream all contain high amounts of saturated fat. The fat in meat and poultry skin is also loaded with saturated fat. A few vegetable fats—coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm kernel oil and palm oil—are high in saturated fat. Cholesterol is found only in foods that come from animals. Egg yolks and organ meats (liver, for example) are very high in cholesterol. Meat and poultry have similar amounts of cholesterol, though some cuts of meat or pieces of chicken may be higher than others. Try to eat more complex carbohydrates (especially from whole grain sources), vegetables and fruits, with only very small amounts of fat.
What's the difference between "good" and "bad" cholesterol?
Cholesterol travels in the blood in packages called lipoproteins. Cholesterol packaged in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is often called "bad" cholesterol, because too much LDL in the blood can lead to cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries. In fact, lowering LDL cholesterol is one of the most important things you can do to improve your heart health. Another type of cholesterol, which is packaged in high-density lipoprotein (HDL), is known as "good" cholesterol. That is because HDL helps remove cholesterol from the blood, preventing it from piling up in the arteries. You should aim for low levels of LDL and high levels of HDL.
I'm under 40. Should I be concerned about heart disease?
Yes, because the lifestyle you lead now may be contributing to atherosclerotic buildup in your arteries—the beginning of coronary heart disease. All women over the age of 20 should have their blood cholesterol tested every five years and their blood pressure checked every one to two years. Blood pressure is usually checked every time you visit a health care professional.
Isn't exercise dangerous for those with coronary heart disease?
While physical activity can strengthen your heart and is recommended even for those who have had a heart attack, some types of activity may worsen existing heart problems. Warning signals include sudden dizziness, cold sweat, paleness, fainting or pain or pressure in your upper body during or after engaging in physical activity. If you notice any of these signs, call your health care professional and/or 911 immediately, and be sure to check with your health care professional before starting an exercise plan if you have a heart condition.
Isn't heart disease dictated by genes?
A family history of heart disease is indeed a risk factor for heart disease, but it plays a smaller role than the risk factors you can control—smoking, diabetes, weight, activity levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Bet on beans and peas
If you've been told you need to lower your heart disease risk, a study shows you'll do well to become a legume-lover. Legumes are a type of food including peas, lentils and many types of beans. In one study, eating them four times a week or more lowered the risk of coronary heart disease by 22 percent, compared with only once a week. A legume-rich diet was also protective against high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Legumes are high-fiber, low in fat and very easy on the budget. The American Dry Bean Board (www.americanbean.org) provides recipes and more information.
Drink your tea
Does tea protect against heart disease? Researchers believe that compounds called flavonoids, found in black and green tea and in certain foods like onions, may help prevent damage to cardiovascular tissues. Studies find that people who consume more flavonoids have a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Another study suggested that the protective effect of tea is stronger in women than in men. Don't overdose on flavonoid sources, but go ahead and enjoy a good cup of tea (or glass of unsweetened iced tea)—and keep an eye out for good recipes with onion.
Exercise for heart health
Ask your health care professional for recommendations before starting a regular exercise program, especially if you've been diagnosed with coronary heart disease. If you're over 55, have been physically inactive or have medical problems, it's especially important to discuss exercise with your health care professional first. Start slowly if you haven't been very active before now—walking 10 to 15 minutes at a time, three times a week, may be a good beginning. with the ultimate goal of accumulating at least 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise at least five days a week or 25 minutes per day of vigorous exercise at least three days a week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.. In addition to aerobic exercise, for additional health benefits, the American Heart Association recommends moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days a week. One major study found that women who walked briskly for three or more hours per week (about 30 minutes a day) slashed their risk of heart disease 35 percent compared to women who walked less frequently.
Know the symptoms of a heart attack
If you feel pressure, discomfort or pain in the center of your chest or that spreads to your arm, neck or jaw, or a crushing or squeezing sensation with shortness of breath, tiredness or upset stomach, you could be experiencing a heart attack. Call 9-1-1. After you call 9-1-1, the operator may recommend that you chew one adult-strength (325 mg) aspirin after he or she makes sure you don't have an allergy to aspirin or a condition that may make taking it too risky. If the operator doesn’t talk to you about chewing an aspirin, the emergency medical technicians or physicians at the hospital will give you one if it’s right for you.
Don't give up on sex
Though many people believe sex can bring on a heart attack, this is not really true. If you can climb two flights of stairs without chest pain, shortness of breath or tiredness, then sex is not likely to cause symptoms. Ask your health care professional how soon you can start having sex again after a hospitalization for heart disease. Choose a time when you're rested and comfortable, not when you're anxious or tired. Start slowly, and let foreplay increase your activity more gradually. Wait two to three hours if you've had a large meal.
Women who are married have a health advantage over women who are single, widowed or divorced, according to a March 2014 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers looked at the demographic information of 3.5 million people who were evaluated for cardiovascular disease and found the married people had lower rates of several cardiovascular diseases. These effects were most pronounced in people younger than 50.
Cope after being diagnosed with heart disease
Understand your reactions. Denial, anger and depression are all ways that normal people react after suffering a heart attack or learning that they have to undergo cardiac surgery. Make it a point to become knowledgeable about recovery and how you can return to normal activities. Otherwise, you may end up becoming too dependent or be hindered by overprotective family members. Work on regaining your self-confidence by taking control of your progress. Ask about any resources or support you need to do this. Try to stay positive, as an optimistic attitude may reduce your risk.
Organizations and Support
American College of Cardiology (ACC)
Address: Heart House
2400 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037
American Heart Association (AHA)
Address: 7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
Hotline: 1-800-AHA-USA-1 (1-800-242-8721)
American Society of Hypertension
Address: 148 Madison Avenue, Fifth Floor
New York, NY 10016
American Stroke Association
Address: 7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
Hotline: 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653)
Heart Failure Society of America
Address: Court International, Suite 240 S
2550 University Avenue West
Saint Paul, MN 55114
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) - NHLBI Health Information Center
Address: Attention: Website
P.O. Box 30105
Bethesda, MD 20824
National Stroke Association
Address: 9707 E. Easter Lane
Centennial, CO 80112
Hotline: 1-800-STROKES (1-800-787-6537)
Pulmonary Hypertension Association
Address: 801 Roeder Road, Suite 400
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Sister to Sister: The Women's Heart Health Foundation
Address: 4701 Willard Avenue, Suite 223
Chevy Chase, MD 20815
Address: 274 Redwood Shores Parkway, #717
Redwood City, CA 94065
WomenHeart: National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease
Address: 818 18th Street, NW, Suite 930
Washington, DC 20006
Women's Health Initiative (WHI)
Address: 2 Rockledge Centre
Suite 10018, MS 7936 6701 Rockledge Drive
Bethesda, MD 20892
Women's Heart Foundation
Address: P.O. Box 7827
West Trenton, NJ 08628
American Heart Association Quick & Easy Cookbook: More Than 200 Healthful Recipes You Can Make in Minutes
by American Heart Association
The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health
by T. Colin Campbell , Thomas M. Campbell II , Howard Lyman, John Robbins
Heal Your Heart - How You Can Prevent or Reverse Heart Disease
by K. Lance Gould
Heart of the Matter: The African American's Guide to Heart Disease, Heart Treatment, and Heart Wellness
by Hilton M. Hudson, Herbert Stern PhD
High Blood Pressure: The Black Man and Woman's Guide to Living with Hypertension
by Hilton M. Hudson II MD FACS, James R. Reed
Johns Hopkins Complete Guide to Preventing & Reversing Heart Disease
by Peter M Kwiterovich Jr.
RealAge Makeover: Take Years Off Your Looks and Add Them to Your Life
by Michael F. Roizen
What to Eat If You Have Heart Disease: Nutritional Therapy for the Prevention & Treatment of Cardiovascular Disease
by Maureen Keane, Daniella Chace
Women's Concise Guide to a Healthier Heart
by Karen J. Carlson , Stephanie A. Eisenstat M.D., Terra Ziporyn Ph.D.
Spanish Society of Cardiology
Address: Madrid, Espana
American Heart Association
Address: 7272 Greenville Ave
Dallas, TX 75231
Address: 8600 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20894
Address: National Women's Health Information Center
8270 Willow Oaks Corporate Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031