Senior female client using a walker while a female Right at Home caregiver walks beside her outside on a sunny day Senior female client using a walker while a female Right at Home caregiver walks beside her outside on a sunny day

Heart Health and Women: It Isn’t Just a Concern for Men

A common misconception about heart health is that it’s only a real concern for men. This is despite the fact that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women in America. Indeed, nearly as many women as men die of heart disease annually. Additionally, heart disease is more prevalent in elderly women than in elderly men, which is definitely not something the general public knows.

So why are many older women, their partners and children unaware of the risk? One reason may be the way heart disease is portrayed in mass media, where victims of heart attacks, for example, are almost always depicted as men. Then there’s the disproportionate attention given to breast cancer. While breast cancer does tragically take the lives of many women, it still doesn’t account for as many fatalities as heart disease.

The Risk of Not Knowing the Truth About Women and Heart Disease

As long as misinformation persists, many older women and the people who care about them will go right on thinking heart disease is something for a man to worry about, not a woman. The problem with not knowing the truth or being lax about heart health is that too many women may ignore or not recognize the symptoms of heart disease, much less do anything proactive to avert problems from happening in the first place. The consequences of not knowing the warning signs and the steps to take can be fatal.

Another challenge when it comes to heart disease is that it can be mistaken for any number of other things, not only by older women experiencing physical discomfort but also by physicians blinded by the same false assumptions that patients harbor. Not recognizing it for what it is can lead to misdiagnosis, which in turn can delay women getting the treatment they need.

Complicating matters is the fact that heart disease symptoms vary from person to person in terms of presentation and degree of severity. Then there’s the added confusion of many conditions mimicking heart disease. There’s no way for a person to know for sure if it’s their heart or something else that’s an issue without getting checked out by a medical professional.

Unfortunately, some heart disease patients are asymptomatic until a serious cardiac incident suddenly occurs. Then, it becomes a matter of reactive rather than preventive care.

Three Different Types of Heart Disease

Symptoms vary in part because there are different types of heart disease:

  • Coronary artery disease – The most common type and leading cause of death for women is coronary artery disease. It’s caused by a buildup of plaque in the walls of arteries that carry blood to the heart and other parts of the body. After menopause, women are at a higher risk of coronary artery disease due to hormonal changes.
  • Arrhythmia – A person may suffer from arrhythmia if their heart beats irregularly, too fast or too slow for a persistent amount of time.
  • Heart failure – The heart is in free-fall when something prevents it from pumping enough blood to support the other organs.

Older Women’s Symptoms of Heart Disease

Experts advise to seek care immediately if any of the following symptoms persist, stop only to return again, or worsen:

  • Angina is a dull, heavy pain in the center of the chest that may also present as an unusual pressure, squeezing or fullness in the chest. It may linger or be intermittent. Angina is the most common heart attack symptom in men and women.
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck, jaw or throat.
  • Pain in the upper abdomen or back.

These symptoms may occur at rest or when active.

Other symptoms women may report are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Prolonged or excessive fatigue
  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs or stomach

Women are more prone than men to experience symptoms that can be easily attributed to the flu, acid reflux or normal aging.

Heart Disease: The Silent Killer

Heart attacks can be dramatic events that cause victims to collapse in agony. But they can also be subtle, making them hard to recognize.

Diabetes, smoking and hyperlipidemia (elevated levels of lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides) put women at greater risk of heart disease than these same things do men. Diagnosis can be more challenging in women, especially as they age, because symptoms may be vague.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Factors that increase women’s risk of heart disease include:

  • A family history of heart disease
  • High LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity, a diet rich in fatty foods, and lack of exercise
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Stress and depression

Pregnant women also face the risk of hypertensive disorders and cardiovascular conditions that can increase their risk of heart disease and pregnancy-birth complications.

How To Combat the Risks of Heart Disease

If you’re a woman, there are things you can do to assess if you are at risk for heart disease, and there are measures you can take to reduce that risk:

  • Ask your physician to recommend a heart specialist who can give you a complete heart workup.
  • Monitor and control your blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Get tested for diabetes.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • If you’re obese, find safe weight-loss methods and change your diet to low-fat foods.
  • Get regular exercise, especially aerobic workouts.
  • Manage stress and mood through natural, healthy practices such as yoga and mindfulness.

Whatever you do, don’t assume that just because you’re a woman, you’re immune from heart disease. Gender has nothing to do with it. Biology and lifestyle do. Women need to be just as mindful about heart health as men. Women also need to make getting screened for heart disease as they age just as much a priority as getting screened for breast cancer.

Where To Turn for Education on Heart Disease

If there is a senior woman in your life, whether a spouse, sibling or parent, encourage her to take her heart health seriously. Start by directing her to helpful online guides from:

Better yet, sit down, investigate, and get educated together and make heart health a shared focus.

How Right at Home Can Help

Caring for a loved one with heart disease can be overwhelming and affect the family caregiver’s health over time. Right at Home’s trained and insured/bonded caregivers can help manage heart disease by providing a wide range of services, including companionship/homemaking, personal care, and respite for the family caregiver. Use our office locator to contact the office nearest you for more information.

Interested in receiving monthly tips, information and advice about the aging journey? Subscribe to our monthly Caring Right at Home e-newsletter.

Author Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is a veteran freelance journalist and author who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The Omaha native and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Follow his work at

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