First, the good news for women. It's a well known fact that women tend to outlive men. For instance, as of 2017, life expectancy for men was 76.1 years, while for women it was 81.1 years - that's five, full years longer.
Today, researchers estimate the lifespan gap will continue. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women's life expectancy is projected to reach 87.3 years by 2060, compared to 83.9 years for men. But why do scientists believe women tend to outlive men? There are a lot of reasons — including findings that show women are more likely to see a doctor when they’re sick.
But in not-so-great news, women are also more vulnerable to heart disease than men. In fact, heart disease in women is more deadly than all forms of cancer — combined. Yet only one in five women believes that heart disease is her greatest health threat. So it’s more important than ever to understand just how serious heart disease is for women, starting with their risk factors.
“The traditional risk factors of family heart health, activity and diet tendencies, and individual age play a larger part in women’s heart disease. Even more important are what we consider ‘modifiable’ risk factors — the ones we can actively control, including high blood pressure and/or cholesterol, smoking or diabetes,” said Heath Wilt, DO, FACC, Cardiologist, AdventHealth Medical Group Cardiology & Cardiovascular Surgery.
Even if you’re a yoga-loving, marathon-running, workout dynamo, your risk for heart disease isn’t completely eliminated. Factors like cholesterol, eating habits and smoking can offset your healthy habits. And unlike with men, it’s not always as clear-cut when a woman is having a heart attack or other heart episode.
“Women are more likely to experience jaw, shoulder, or neck pain, than chest pain during a heart attack. Although chest discomfort may still be present, it is also more likely to accompany atypical locations (like the right shoulder), nausea, significant and sudden illness. It may even mimic heartburn,” said Wilt.
Similarly, strokes are less likely to display noticeable symptoms of slurred speech or focal numbness and weakness, instead appearing as confusion, disorientation, profound fatigue or garbled speaking.
Women who have experienced pregnancy complications should also know that those issues could affect their heart health.
“Issues during pregnancy — such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and pregnancy-induced hypertension — can influence cardiac health even decades later. Similarly, key factors such as time of onset of menstruation as a youth, or timing of menopause can also influence long-term cardiac health,” said Wilt.
The bottom line is that many things can put you at risk for these problems — things you can control, and others that you can’t. “Every woman needs to be aware of her body and recognize new symptoms as something that may represent a sudden life-threatening event. For prevention, it’s being aware of your numbers (like blood pressure and cholesterol) and other risk factors (smoking, diabetes, family history). It’s also about keeping an open line of communication with your trusted provider when you feel you may be at risk, so that additional testing, therapy or education can be provided,” said Wilt.
Remember, with the right information, education and care, heart disease in women can be treated, reduced and even – in many cases – prevented. In fact, studies show that healthy lifestyle choices by women are already resulting in hundreds fewer heart-disease related deaths per day.
Here are just a few of the lifestyle changes every woman should consider:
- Don’t smoke
- Manage your blood sugar
- Get your blood pressure under control
- Lower your cholesterol
- Know your family history
- Stay active
- Lose or manage your weight
- Eat healthy
What a heart attack feels like to a woman:
- Upper body pain
- Shortness of breath
- Unusual fatigue
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Light headedness or dizziness
- Chest pain discomfort, like there’s a ton of weight on you.
At AdventHealth, we offer HEARTaware, a free, online heart disease risk assessment designed to help you identify your risk factors for developing heart disease. To complete a quick and free heart risk assessment, visit AdventHealthKC.com/Heart.