Women and Heart Disease

What Increases Your Risk


Most women—9 out of 10—have at least one risk factor for heart disease or stroke. The good news is 80% of heart disease and stroke can be prevented through lifestyle change.

Cardiologists say one of the best things you can do for your heart health is to understand your personal risk of developing heart disease. That means you should know:

  1. What increases your risk for heart disease.
  2. What you can do to lower your risk.

For women, it’s especially important to talk with your health care provider about traditional risk factors linked to heart disease, as well as those that are specific to being a woman.  

The usual suspects for heart disease include:

  • Smoking
  • Having high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes
  • Not exercising or sitting for long periods of time
  • Eating a diet high in salt, saturated fats, cholesterol and added sugars
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • Older age

Diabetes, mental stress/depression, obesity and smoking tend to play a bigger role in the development of CAD in women compared with men.

Also, be certain to discuss risk factors that are unique to women. These conditions are known to up the likelihood of heart disease. For example:

  • Menopause — Heart disease can happen at any age, but it tends to increase in women around or after menopause.
  • Having started menstruating before 10 or after 17 years of age.
  • Gestational hypertension/preeclampsia — Any elevation in blood pressure increases the risk for heart disease in women.
  • Gestational diabetes during any pregnancy.
  • Preterm delivery (before 37 weeks of gestation).
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Women are also more likely to have less common conditions linked to CAD. These include:

  • Heart disease that affects the smaller arteries supplying the heart (microvascular): These are typically due to dysfunction of the arteries and not complete blockages. Standard tests aren’t designed to diagnose microvascular endothelial dysfunction.
  • Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus (SLE) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
  • Broken heart syndrome, also called Takotsubo Syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy: Despite the name, it can occur with good or bad emotional excitement.
  • Breast cancer: Although not exclusive to women, it certainly occurs more often in women. The chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer can damage the heart, both acutely and in the future. Knowing your risk for heart disease and controlling risk factors is important after breast cancer. It is now more likely you will die from heart disease than breast cancer because the treatment for breast cancer has gotten so good. Having breast cancer should be considered as a risk factor for heart disease.

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Published: February 2017
Editorial Team Lead: Gina Lundberg, MD, FACC
Medical Reviewer: Martha Gulati, MD, MS, FACC

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Women often experience heart attack symptoms differently than men. It's important for a woman to be able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and react quickly by calling 911.

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Women and Heart Disease

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