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Heart Disease Is the No. 1 Killer of U.S. Women

Heart Disease Is the No. 1 Killer of U.S. Women

Many people mistakenly assume that heart disease is just a men’s health issue. Yet heart disease also ranks as the number one killer of American women. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is responsible for more deaths in women than all types of cancer combined, including breast, ovarian, uterine and lung cancer. Unfortunately, many women are not aware of their risk factors for heart disease.

“For the most part, women’s risk factors for heart disease are similar to those for men – including age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of exercise, obesity, diabetes, smoking and a family history of heart disease,” says Nowwar Mustafa, MD, an interventional cardiologist with Washington Township Medical Foundation (WTMF). “There are some differences, however. For example, heart disease in women who have not gone through menopause is not as common as it is among men of the same age, perhaps because estrogen provides some protection against heart disease. After menopause, the risk of heart disease in women increases to match that of men.”

The AHA notes that in the past, many of the major cardiovascular research studies were conducted on men, which adversely affected the diagnosis and treatment of women with heart disease. Thanks to educational efforts such as the AHA’s annual Go Red for Women Day, observed this year on Friday, Feb. 3, women and their physicians are becoming more aware of the impact of heart disease among women. Also, in recent years, increased research on heart disease in women has revealed important differences in women’s risks, symptoms and responses to treatments.

While women are not able to control some risk factors such as age, menopause and family history, risk factors related to lifestyle choices are another matter.

“There are a lot of lifestyle choices that women can make to reduce their risks for heart disease,” Dr. Mustafa explains. “Following a healthy diet with reduced saturated fats, getting enough exercise, managing your weight, avoiding smoking and limiting alcoholic beverages are all choices women can make. If a woman has a family history of heart disease, she might want to consider whether those people in her family with heart disease made poor lifestyle choices and take measures to avoid making those same mistakes.”

Dr. Mustafa adds that another “choice” women can make to reduce their risks for heart disease is to see their doctor regularly to monitor their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar.

“Early detection of elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar is important,” he says. “High blood pressure, heart blockages due to cholesterol buildup and diabetes can all be asymptomatic in the early stages. But if those conditions are diagnosed before they become dangerous, we do have excellent medications and other options for managing those problems.”

Women’s symptoms of heart disease, including heart attacks, may differ from men’s symptoms, too.

“Symptoms of heart disease can be more subtle in women,” says Dr. Mustafa. “In the case of a heart attack, for example, women don’t always experience the classic symptom of crushing pain in the chest. Instead, they might experience sudden and unusual shortness of breath, as well as profound fatigue and indigestion or heartburn.”

Women suffering a heart attack also may experience a range of other symptoms that are seemingly unrelated to heart pain, including:

  • Nausea and dizziness
  • Pain in the shoulder and upper back
  • Atypical pain in the stomach or abdomen
  • Cold, sweaty skin and paleness
  • Swelling of the ankles or lower legs

“We don’t really know why women can have different symptoms of heart disease and heart attacks than men,” Dr. Mustafa acknowledges. “The important thing is that if a woman experiences any of these symptoms, or has any sign of chest pain or a sense of an irregular heartbeat, she should consult a physician right away. Women sometimes don’t seek treatment, but they shouldn’t assume that their symptoms could not be heart-related.”

For more information about cardiac-related services at Washington Hospital, visit If you need help finding a physician, visit and click on the link for “Find A Doctor.”