Image of three people, including Fran Lowrey and Dr. Michael Gault

“At age 62, I had a blocked coronary artery. I knew I had risk factors for heart disease but I never thought it would happen to me. Since my heart attack, I have lost weight and exercise regularly. Today, I am proud to wear a red dress and stand beside my colleagues who were a vital part of the team that helped get me back on my feet. Red, the color we associate with our hearts, is also an empowering color for women, and serves as a reminder of the importance of being 'heart healthy'.” — Fran Lowrey, R.N.

The idea that women are less susceptible to heart disease than men is widespread—and far from the truth.

In fact, more females succumb to heart problems each year than their male counterparts, accounting for one out of every three deaths among women nationwide.

Despite these overwhelming statistics, only 57 percent of American women know that heart disease is the number one cause of death among members of their own sex. A majority also believe that the symptoms of a heart attack are the same for men as for women—a misconception that can lead to trouble. “Women often don’t experience the crushing chest pain that many men suffer,” says Michael Gault, M.D., a Saddleback Memorial cardiologist. “Instead, their symptoms are often more subtle—dizziness, exhaustion, sweating, and heartburn, twinges of pain below the ribs or pressure in an unrelated area such as the back.”

Learn about Women's Heart Attack Warning Signs

Personal Heart Risk Factors

A majority of women also fail to make the connection between heart disease and their personal risk factors. Some of these factors affect women differently than men, complicating issues even more. They include:

  • Smoking. For reasons not yet understood, females who light up on a regular basis are 50 percent more likely to develop heart disease than male smokers. They’re also four times more susceptible to heart problems than someone who’s never smoked. In fact, smoking is the most important preventable cause of cardiovascular disease for both men and women.
  • Obesity. Today, more than half of adult American women are overweight and one-third are obese. By the time a woman is 20 percent over her ideal weight, she’s doubled her chances of incurring heart disease.
  • High blood pressure. Hypertension goes hand-in-hand with heart disease. By the time a woman reaches menopause, the chances of her blood pressure exceeding the normal level of 120/80 are greater than a man’s.
  • High cholesterol. When total cholesterol levels exceed 200 mg/dl, plaque can build up in arteries, leading to a heart attack or stroke. But the amount of specific cholesterol types plays a major role in overall cardiovascular health. In addition to high total cholesterol, LDL (bad) and triglyceride levels, having a low HDL (good) level is considered a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Physical inactivity. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity—all risk factors for heart disease.
  • Other risk factors include a family history of premature heart disease, age and stress.

Saddleback Memorial offers a variety of health education and monitored exercise programs to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. To increase women’s awareness of heart disease, the hospital will also hold special events in February.