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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 strokes can be prevented through lifestyle change.

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

  • What makes it more likely you will have heart disease
  • What you can do to lower your chance of developing heart disease

Traditional risk factors

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 female.

The better-known indicators for heart disease include:

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

Race, such as being Black or South Asian, also is linked with a higher risk.

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

Female-specific concerns

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.
  • Health problems during pregnancy
    • Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy – including gestational high blood pressure, preeclampsia, eclampsia, or chronic high blood pressure – or any elevation in blood pressure increases the chance of heart disease in women.
    • Gestational diabetes during any pregnancy.
    • Preterm delivery (delivering before 37 weeks of pregnancy).
    • Having a small-for-gestational age baby (in the lowest 10th percentile)
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (many ovarian cysts).

Oral birth control, if you smoke, is also a concern.

Less common conditions

Women are also more likely to have the less common conditions linked to coronary artery disease. 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 overwhelming 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 been so successful. Having a history of breast cancer should be considered as a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Last Edited 03/11/2021