Why is there a difference?
While the basic anatomy of a healthy heart is the same in both men and women, a wide range of other factors affect its function over the course of a lifetime. Some contributors to heart health are the same for both genders – for instance, men and women may be affected by a family history of heart disease as well as by lifestyle, including cigarette smoking, being sedentary or being overweight. However other influences, such as hormones and emotions, play different roles in the health of a woman’s heart and circulatory system than a man’s.
What Women Need To Know
Here are some interesting new findings about women’s heart health that are worth your attention and – if relevant – a discussion with your doctor.
The age a woman had her first period is linked to her risk for heart disease.
Women whose first menstrual period occurred prior to age 10 or after age 17 were found to have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke or complications related to hypertension. The lowest risk for heart disease was found in women who had their first period at age 13.
Women (especially those with hypertension) who experience pregnancy complications are at a higher risk for heart disease later in life.
Researchers at the Public Health Institute's Child Health and Development Studies (CHDS) in Berkeley, Calif., found that a premature delivery raised the risk of heart disease sevenfold. Experiencing preeclampsia elevated risk 5.6 times. Having a low birthweight baby raised a woman’s heart disease risk 4.8 times. The same study also found new links between two other pregnancy conditions and heart disease: High levels of sugar in the urine (glycosuria) and hemoglobin decline (reduced ability of the red blood cells to transport oxygen) raised heart disease risk in women as well.
Type 2 diabetes is much more likely to trigger heart disease in women than it is in men.
The American Heart Association recently announced that women with type 2 diabetes have twice the risk of developing coronary heart disease (the most common type of heart disease) as men with the same condition. That’s especially noteworthy given that any adult with diabetes is between two and four times more likely to have heart disease or experience a stroke, in large part because of the obesity, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol that typically accompany diabetes.
Emotional stress has a stronger negative impact on a woman’s heart health than it does for men.
Research from Emory University in Atlanta finds that experiencing emotional stress (loss, divorce, etc.) has a far greater negative impact on the health of women with heart disease than it does on men. Women who develop heart disease at a young age were identified as being “disproportionately vulnerable” to emotional stress. Given a treadmill test in which they were asked to think about a stressful life experience and then deliver a speech about it to an audience, the women in the study experienced a three times greater reduction in blood flow to their hearts than men given the same test.
(An interesting side note on a related topic: Wives are more likely to experience negative health consequences with marital stress than husbands, according to a study from the University of Utah.)
Women who smoke are 25% more likely to develop heart disease than men who smoke.
Globally, cigarette smoking is one of the leading causes of heart disease for both men and women – but it appears that physiological differences make female smokers more vulnerable to the toxins in cigarette smoke.
Women with atrial fibrillation are sicker than men with the same condition.
Research from Duke University finds that atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat, often called “afib”) is a stronger risk factor for both heart disease and death in women than in men. Not only do women have more symptoms associated with their condition but those symptoms are also less responsive to treatment.
Middle-aged women are more likely than middle-aged men to die of a heart attack.
Men are more likely to have an “out of the blue” heart attack prior to age 55 than women – but middle-aged women who have a heart attack tend to have had more medical problems, more chest pain and a poorer quality of life in the 30 days before their heart attacks, according to a recent study from the Yale School of Medicine. They are also three times more likely to die as a result of their heart attack than their male counterparts.
What to Do?
Whatever your gender, if you know you are at high risk for heart disease – or you already have it – there are many things that you can do to protect your health. Awareness of risk factors is an excellent motivator to do what all of us should be doing anyway – male, female, old and young. To achieve the best possible heart health, it is important to maintain a healthy weight, get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, manage stress, eat healthy foods and avoid cigarettes. Discuss your risk profile with your doctor to determine whether you need to do anything further to keep your heart healthy!