Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in men and women. Women should be especially mindful since one in 16 women aged 20 and older receive a coronary heart disease diagnosis and one in five women die from heart disease.

Warning signs in women

Women have multiple roles to play in society with work and families and often are so focused on caring for others that they may not consider their symptoms indicative of heart disease. While both men and women can experience the typical symptom of chest pain, research shows that women usually have at least three other symptoms that tend to distract from their presentation of cardiovascular disease. Women may experience:

  • Chest pain that feels like tightness or pressure
  • Extreme or unusual fatigue
  • Throat and jaw pain
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen could feel like indigestion or heartburn.
  • Pain, discomfort, or a tingling sensation in one or both arms
  • Upper back pain that may have a burning, tingling, or pressure-like feeling.
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting

Since these symptoms can be associated with multiple things, women may not recognize it early enough to seek appropriate medical help. And then when women do experience chest pain, they may not be taken seriously by a health care professional or may not have appropriate testing done since the chest pain is blended within their list of symptoms.

Testing and education

Traditional testing for cardiovascular issues look for blockages in the blood vessels, but about 50 percent of women may not have any blockages in the bigger blood vessels of the heart and therefore have “normal” test findings. They may then be reassured that there is nothing wrong with their heart and then have a large cardiac episode at a later time, like more severe heart failure or a heart attack.

However, there is specific testing available at specialized centers to look for abnormalities in the tiny blood vessels of the heart called the microvascular vessels. At the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center, we want to continue to bring awareness of women’s heart health to the forefront.

To do this, we opened the Women’s Heart Center – a place dedicated solely to expertise in education, prevention, early diagnosis, and timely management of women-specific cardiac presentations across their lifespan.

The Women’s Heart Center differentiates itself from other programs by providing the gold standard of care for women, including invasive procedures like coronary function testing for microvascular disease and testing for vasospasm, to ensure a precise diagnosis. The Women’s Heart Center’s care extends to all women from pre-conception planning, care during pregnancy, early menopause, menopause and beyond, serving anyone from the age of 18 and older. Research will also hold a crucial role in shaping the plan of care. Today's women will contribute to the future health of the next generation of women while also receiving advanced treatment opportunities only available through research studies and clinical trials.

The Women’s Heart Center also offers second opinion services for women, who continue to experience cardiac symptoms, even after having diagnostic testing but were told that there is nothing wrong with their heart and may need more advanced testing to discover the issue. This is especially important if they’ve been told they had a heart attack, but no blockages were found in their blood vessels or if they feel they haven't received an accurate diagnosis in the past.

Difference in heart attack symptoms for men and women

In addition to providing advanced treatments, the team can complete personalized risk assessments and provide them with valuable preventative strategies. While men and women do have similar risk factors for developing heart disease, these traditional risk factors tend to affect women differently than they do men. Risk factors like diabetes, smoking, obesity, and family history of premature coronary artery disease tend to have a larger effect on women compared to men. Some additional risk factors are sex related and unique to women like pregnancy related complications, menopause, inflammatory diseases, and stress.

Know your numbers

We need to recognize these nontraditional and traditional risk factors early on and act on them to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. It is important to educate women about the possibility of developing heart disease at a young age and make them aware of their symptoms and to seek medical advice as soon as possible. It is imperative to teach women to be their own advocates.

Ways to be your own advocate:

  • Know your blood pressure numbers, get checked regularly with goal <130/80 mmHg.
  • Know your cholesterol levels LDL <100 (LDL <70 if diabetic).
  • Know your weight (goal BMI <25).
  • Know your sugar levels (A1c <5.4).
  • Quit smoking.
  • Exercise regularly with fast walking (150 minutes a week or 30 minutes a day for 5 days)
  • Know healthy calorie intake. Try a heart-healthy diet like Mediterranean diets that are rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
  • Know your family history for heart conditions.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Manage stress levels, seek professional help.

At the Women’s Heart Center, we approach our patients wholistically and do a thorough investigation for both traditional and non-traditional small vessel disease with specific diagnostic options for heart conditions. We make no delay in diagnosing heart conditions in women and make sure there is no delay in starting the appropriate treatment to ensure the best cardiac outcomes and quality of life.

Don’t delay your care, remember how many people need you. It is time for us to work together, to advocate for our health and to change the trajectory of cardiovascular disease outcomes in women. To all the women out there – listen to your heart!