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Women & CVD

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in women worldwide.

Women with CVD continue to be under-diagnosed and under-treated due to misconceptions and lack of awareness among both patients and doctors.

Young women are more likely to die following a heart attack than young men.

1 in 3

deaths in women are caused by CVD

High blood pressure is the number 1 risk factor for CVD in women

13x

as many women die of CVD than of breast cancer

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for 35% of deaths in women each year – more than all cancers combined. It can affect women of any age. Yet, CVD in women continues to be seriously understudied, under-recognised, under-diagnosed and under-treated. This is primarily the result of various misconceptions, including the widespread view that cardiovascular disease affects men more than it does women.

Some heart disease symptoms in women can differ from those in men, which leads to women being more frequently misdiagnosed, or their symptoms dismissed as anxiety-related. The fact that women continue to be under-represented in clinical trials is one of the reasons why there is insufficient awareness among female patients and their doctors of sex-specific symptoms and presentations of CVD.

There is an urgent need for increased understanding of CVD in women among both healthcare professionals and the general public. The more women know about heart disease, the better chance they have of beating it.

Several major risk factors for cardiovascular disease affect both women and men, including high blood pressure, unhealthy diet, obesity, physical inactivity and high cholesterol. But other risk factors may play a bigger role in the development of CVD in women:

Diabetes: Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than men with diabetes.

Stress: Stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s. Depression can also make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Smoking: Women who smoke are more likely to develop CVD than men who smoke.

Menopause: Low levels of estrogen after menopause increase the risk of developing disease in smaller blood vessels.

Pregnancy complications: High blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase a mother’s long-term risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and CVD.

Women of all ages should take heart disease seriously and pay close attention to CVD risk factors.

According to the World Health Organization, as many as 80% of all heart attacks and strokes are preventable. The majority of deaths due to CVD are precipitated by risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, or diabetes, which can, to a large extent, be prevented or controlled through the consumption of a healthy diet, regular exercise and avoiding tobacco. Keeping an eye on your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels is also very important.

Eat a healthy and balanced diet

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is crucial to maintaining a healthy heart and circulation system. A healthy diet should include a wide variety of unprocessed and fresh foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five portions every day), whole grains, nuts and foods low in saturated fats, sugars and salt. Be wary of processed foods, which often contain high levels of salt, and drink lots of water!
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Exercise regularly

It only takes 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, five days a week, to improve and maintain your health. Adults (aged 18-65) and seniors (65+) should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity, or at least 75 minutes of high-intensity physical activity, every week. Children and adolescents should do at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity every day.

Try to make exercise a regular part of your life: use the stairs instead of the lift, get off the bus a few stops earlier and walk the rest of the way. Being active is also a great way to relieve stress and control your weight, which are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Maintain a healthy body weight

Lowering your risk of overweight and obesity normally involves reducing the number of calories consumed from fats and sugars, increasing the portion of daily intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and exercising regularly. At least 60 minutes of exercise most days a week will help you maintain a healthy body weight.
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Avoid tobacco use

If you stop smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease will be halved within a year and will return to a normal level over time. Avoid smoke-filled environments: exposure to second-hand smoke significantly increases the risk of heart attack. All forms of tobacco are harmful, and there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco. If you’re having trouble quitting tobacco, talk to your doctor about developing a tailored plan to suit your needs.
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Avoid alcohol

As with tobacco, there is no safe level for drinking alcohol, and the detrimental effects of alcohol far outweigh any potential protective benefits. While drinking less may reduce your risk of CVD, evidence shows that the ideal situation for health is to not drink at all. Even moderate drinkers notice health benefits when they stop drinking alcohol.

Manage stress

Stress can cause the arteries to tighten, which can increase the risk of heart disease, especially in women.  Exercising, deep breathing, relaxing your muscles and making time for the things you love are some things you can do to help manage your stress levels. If things are starting to feel out of hand, don’t be afraid to talk to someone or seek professional help.

Know your numbers

Knowing your numbers is an important part of keeping your heart healthy. Checking your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels on a regular basis is important to help determine and control your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

  • Know your blood pressure: High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the biggest causes of heart attack and stroke. It usually has no symptoms, so it’s important to get it regularly checked and, if needed, take the necessary measures to lower it, which may include dietary changes, increased physical activity, and medication.
  • Know your cholesterol: High levels of cholesterol in your blood also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. Blood cholesterol can normally be controlled through a healthy diet and, if necessary, by appropriate medications.
  • Know your blood sugar: Having diabetes, or high blood sugar, increases increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes, so it’s important to know your numbers and take any necessary precautions to control your blood sugar if your doctor prescribes it.

Take your medication as prescribed

If you have a higher risk of developing heart disease or stroke, you may need to take medication to reduce your risk. These can include statins to lower blood cholesterol levels, low-dose aspirin to prevent blood clots, insulin for diabetes and tablets to reduce blood pressure. Take the medication that your doctor has prescribed and make sure you stick to your regiment.

Know the warning signs

The sooner assistance is sought, the greater the chances of a full recovery.

Treatments for cardiovascular disease can differ depending on the condition, but can include:

Lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, and alcohol and tobacco use
Medication, including ones that treat risk factors like blood pressure, or to dissolve blood clots
Devices such as pacemakers or implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs)
Medical procedures including stents, heart valve surgery or coronary bypass surgery

In general, CVD treatment in women and in men is similar. However, women are less likely to receive the treatment they need:

  • Women are less likely to be treated with aspirin and statins to prevent future heart attacks, despite studies showing similar benefits in both men and women.
  • Cardiac rehabilitation can improve health and aid recovery from CVD, but women are less likely to be referred for cardiac rehabilitation than men.

Women are also less likely than men to have coronary bypass surgery, potentially because women are less likely to experience obstructive coronary artery disease.

The most common heart attack symptom, in both men and women, is some type of chest pain, pressure or discomfort. But chest pain is not always the most noticeable symptom, especially in women, who are more likely to experience it as pressure or tightness in the chest. They may even have no chest pain at all.

For women, the pain may be more diffused, spreading to the shoulders, neck, jaw, arms, abdomen and back. Women may experience pain more like heartburn or indigestion, as well as unexplained anxiety, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, palpitations and cold sweat. Heart attacks in women may be preceded by unexplained fatigue.

Compared with men, women tend to have symptoms more often when resting, doing regular daily activities, or even when asleep.

Studies have shown that young women are more likely to suffer adverse outcomes following a heart attack than young men. Because women’s heart attack symptoms can differ from men’s, women might be diagnosed less often with heart disease than men. Knowing your symptoms is the first step to beating CVD.

Coronary heart disease can increase your risk of death during pregnancy. The likelihood of developing heart disease is higher for women who smoke, are overweight, have a family history of early heart disease, and have diabetes or high blood pressure. Age also has an impact on a pregnant woman’s likelihood of developing heart disease.

High blood pressure, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes during pregnancy can all greatly increase a women’s risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

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Women & CVD

Women & CVD

The most common heart attack symptom, in both men and women, is some type of chest pain, pressure or discomfort. But chest pain is not always the most noticeable symptom, especially in women, who are more likely to experience it as pressure or tightness in the chest. They may even have no chest pain at […]