February is American Heart Month! Doctors have long observed that heart disease manifests differently in women versus men. Women often develop the disease later than men, and symptoms manifest differently. However, heart disease is still the leading cause of death for both sexes.
Recent research is uncovering more clues to these differences, allowing doctors to learn more about how to prevent and treat heart disease in women. Hopefully, these developments will prevent deaths in the near future.
Women experience a wider range of symptoms. It was long believed that women experience different symptoms of a heart attack than men do. Now, we are learning that women can experience the same symptoms, but also additional symptoms not usually seen in men.
For example, a woman experiencing a heart attack might display the usual chest, jaw, and arm pain, vomiting, sweating, and heart palpitations. But in addition, women in particular often report back pain, or a sensation of heartburn or indigestion. Their arm pain tends to radiate down the left arm in particular.
Menopause symptoms might predict heart disease risk. We know that estrogen provides a protective benefit to the heart, and that plummeting levels of the hormone during and after menopause remove this protection. Now, research is showing a link between the severity of menopause and heart disease risk. Women who experience more hot flashes, sleep disturbances, and other menopause symptoms exhibit higher rates of heart disease post menopause.
Doctors can use this information to focus prevention, awareness, and treatment methods toward women who need them the most.
Breast cancer survivors face increased risk. Unfortunately, those who survive a prior diagnosis of breast cancer also face increased risk of deep vein thrombosis, arrhythmia, heart valve disease, heart failure, and sudden cardiac arrest compared to women who have not had breast cancer. The heightened risk remains for about five years after diagnosis, pointing to a need for increased monitoring of the cardiovascular system at this time.
Drugs might work differently in women. According to a new study published The Lancet, women experience lower rates of hospitalization and death when given about half the dosage of ACE inhibitors, agiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs), or beta blockers. The differences may be due to weight or hormones.
Talk to your physician about your concerns regarding heart disease prevention and treatment. If you fall into any of the above risk categories, additional monitoring could be beneficial to you.