Women & Heart Disease

Heart disease is not just a “man’s disease,” right? Cardiovascular disease affects millions of people each year, including women. Every minute in the United States, someone's wife, mother, daughter or sister dies from heart disease, stroke or another form of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease continues to be a woman’s greatest health threat.

Is this something new?

Heart disease has always been an ongoing issue for women, but women haven’t always been in the spotlight in terms of cardiac literature. In fact, medical research over the years has heavily emphasized the cardiovascular health of men more so than women, according to Steven Henao, M.D., chief vascular surgeon for New Mexico Heart Institute/Lovelace Medical Group.

“While a lot of clinical research was on men, cardiac problems weren’t always studied on women. This isn’t anything new, but it is something we are now realizing,” explains Dr. Henao.

“There are many studies that haven’t been done on women, as most of the traditional ways we do research in the world are heavily biased on male subjects. In recent outings in cardiovascular literature, many of us have been trying to make that right,” says Dr. Henao. “The Heart Hospital of New Mexico at Lovelace Medical Center is the highest enroller in female subjects for multiple studies.”

One thing we do know for certain is a woman’s body is wired differently than a man’s, which can influence her heart health. Dr. Henao explains that heart disease in women can actually be tied to small blood vessels.

 “The blood vessels in a woman are smaller, more delicate, winding and susceptible to injury,” explains Dr. Henao. “As you start to get plaque buildup or narrowing, you basically have less forgiveness in a female anatomy. A smaller blood vessel can get locked much easier than a larger blood vessel.”

“You have to have good health to give good health”

More women need to make their overall health a priority, warns Dr. Henao: “One of the things we have noticed as a pattern isn’t even about medicine, it’s about the social hurtles that women have accessing care from their doctors. Most women between the ages of 50-70 are usually taking care of significant others and rarely take time for themselves to get checked for blockages or heart disease.”

“As a result, more women are sickly because they have been caring for their families their entire lives and neglected their own health. I encourage men and women to take time to take care of yourself so you can do what you love to do, including taking care of your families. Not going to the doctor or keeping up with prescriptions translates into big problems as you get into your 70s and 80s,” he said.

Risk factors

Women should be wary of the risk factors associated with heart disease. “Smoking is a toxin and creates blockages or plaques. Women tend to present a more severe and more progressive advanced type of cardiovascular disease than men usually because of smoking,” explains Dr. Henao. “Diabetes, morbid obesity and kidney failure are other common risk factors that cause a recurrent insult to our patients, requiring them to have surgeries or procedures.”

Heart attack symptoms in women

Did you know that at least 10% of women experience no chest pain during a heart attack? Although the classic signs of heart attack, like crushing chest pain or arm pain, can happen to any individual experiencing a cardiac emergency, these are not the typical coronary symptoms Dr. Henao and his team see often, especially in women.

“Women may experience nausea, dizziness, abdominal pain or feeling of malaise,” explains Dr. Henao. “These conditions are not obvious triggers for getting somebody to the hospital for a heart attack. Some patients may write it off as suffering from the flu or cold, when in fact they are having or had a heart attack. We are seeing a lot of women come late in the game.”

Approximately every 40 seconds, an American will have a heart attack. If you are experiencing the signs of heart attack, seek immediate medical attention or call 911 and ask to be taken to the nearest Lovelace Emergency Room.

Early detection of heart conditions can save lives. If you are interested in learning about the heart scan offered by the Heart Hospital of New Mexico at Lovelace Medical Center, click here.

To make an appointment with a New Mexico Heart Institute/Lovelace Medical Group provider, call 505.841.1000.