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It's Not Just Your Mother's Heart Disease: Why Heart Disease Is Affecting Young Women

It's Not Just Your Mother's Heart Disease: Why Heart Disease Is Affecting Young Women

By Nieca Goldberg, MD

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Young women rarely worry about having a heart attack. They assume they're not at risk, but nothing could be further from the truth. Heart disease is not just something your mother or grandmother needs to be concerned about.

You may be at increased risk of heart disease if you have or have had certain conditions, including:

  • An autoimmune disease, such as lupus or psoriatic arthritis

  • Gestational diabetes

  • Hypertension of pregnancy

  • Preeclampsia during pregnancy

  • Fibromuscular dysplasia

Autoimmune diseases create inflammation, which in turn triggers a buildup of plaque in the arteries.

Fibromuscular dysplasia, which affects blood vessels, is found with far greater frequency in women. It increases the chances of a rare type of heart attack called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). Instead of a heart attack caused by a clot—a myocardial infarction—a SCAD is caused by an acute tear in a coronary artery. Women with fibromuscular dysplasia should be monitored regularly by their health care professional and avoid high-intensity interval exercise and extreme emotional stress.

Warning signs of a SCAD are similar to other heart attack symptoms in women, including tightness or pressure in the chest, shortness of breath, fainting and extreme fatigue. It's important to note that a SCAD can happen to women who do not live with fibromuscular dysplasia and having the disorder doesn't mean you will have a SCAD heart attack.

Problems during pregnancy also increase risk for younger women, particularly gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and preeclampsia. African-American women and older mothers are particularly vulnerable. If you have high blood pressure during your pregnancy, it's important to be monitored frequently while pregnant and get regular checkups afterward. High blood pressure often returns after the baby is born.

With regular care and good maintenance, risk to your heart can be reduced. A lifestyle that includes a heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, proper medication and reducing sodium and alcohol can help you and your heart have a long and healthy life.