- coronary artery disease (blockages in the blood vessels around the heart)
- peripheral artery disease (blockages in the blood vessels in the arms or legs)
- problems with your heart’s rhythm (arrhythmia)
- problems with your heart’s muscles or valves (valvular heart disease)
- congestive heart failure (problem with the pumping or relaxation functions of the heart muscle)
These issues may develop over time or may be a result of abnormal formation of the heart in utero (before birth, called congenital heart disease). Heart disease is also called cardiovascular disease.
It’s often thought of as a health problem that mostly affects men. However, it’s the leading cause of death for women in the United States, responsible for about 1 in 4 female deaths each year.
- chest pain or discomfort, which can be either sharp, or dull and heavy (called angina)
- pain in your neck, jaw, or throat
- pain in your upper abdomen
- upper back pain
- shortness of breath
- general weakness
- changes in skin color, such as grayish skin
These symptoms may occur either while you’re at rest or during activities of daily life. These can also be the symptoms of a heart attack.
More symptoms may become apparent as heart disease progresses. Symptoms can differ depending on what specific type of heart disease you have.
The symptoms of heart disease in women are also different than in men, who are more likely to have chest pain.
Potential later symptoms of heart disease in women include:
Some types of heart disease are congenital, which means they’re a result of anatomical abnormalities in the way the heart was formed.
Genetic factors can also influence the chance of developing heart disease. Others can develop regardless of risk factors.
However, there are many other conditions and lifestyle factors that can put you at a higher risk of developing heart disease. These include:
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- chronic stress
- family history of heart disease
- inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- menopause or premature menopause
- not exercising
- having high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy
- having overweight or obesity
There are also a number or conditions and issues for which having heart disease puts you at risk, including:
It’s never too early to see a doctor to discuss your risk for heart disease. In fact, the new primary prevention guidelines say that the earlier the risk factors for heart disease are prevented or treated, the less likely you are to develop heart disease later in life.
So, if you’re concerned about your risk for heart disease, make an appointment to discuss how you can prevent this highly preventable condition.
If you’re having any symptoms at all, it’s very important to discuss these with your doctor as heart disease can masquerade in many different ways.
It’s easy to dismiss many warning signs of heart disease like fatigue, indigestion, and shortness of breath as just a normal part of life or mild illness. But because a heart attack can happen suddenly, it’s important not to ignore any potential warning signs.
If you have any of the above symptoms of heart disease, especially if you also have risk factors, see a doctor.
Call 911 if you have signs of a heart attack, including:
- chest pain, heaviness, tightness, or pressure
- sudden and severe arm pain
- shortness of breath
- losing consciousness
- profuse sweating or nausea
- a sense of doom
To diagnose heart disease, a doctor will first ask about your personal and family medical history. They’ll then ask about your symptoms, when they started, and how severe they are. They’ll also ask about your lifestyle, such as if you smoke or exercise.
Depending on your symptoms and history, your doctor may do other blood tests, including tests to check:
- inflammation levels
- sodium and potassium levels
- blood cell counts
- kidney function
- liver function
- thyroid function
- other specialized lipid tests
Other tests include:
- Electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure electrical activity in the heart. This helps a doctor look at issues with your heart rhythm, as well as evidence of heart attacks.
- Echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart and looks at your heart structure, function, and the performance of the heart valves.
- Stress test to see how well your heart performs under physical stress. During this test, you’ll exercise while wearing equipment to measure your heart’s electrical signals and your blood pressure. It can predict whether you have blockages that may be limiting blood flow to your heart when you exercise.
- Ultrasound of carotid arteries in your neck to look for stroke risk.
- Ankle brachial index, the ratio of the blood pressure in your legs to your arms.
- Coronary CTA, a specialized CT scan that looks at the blood vessels around the heart to see if there are blockages present.
A doctor might also suggest a continuous EKG or ambulatory arrhythmia monitor, where you wear a device that constantly records your heart’s electrical signals. Depending on your symptoms, you might wear this device for a few days or a few weeks.
If these tests are inconclusive, you may need more invasive tests to diagnose heart disease. These include:
- Cardiac catheterization, which shows if your arteries are blocked and how well your heart is working.
- Implantable loop recorder, which is an arrhythmia monitor implanted under the skin that helps determine the causes of arrhythmia (irregular heart beat).
The risk factors for heart disease are complicated and include genetics, other biological factors, and general health and lifestyle factors.
While you may not be able to completely eliminate your risk for heart disease, you can take steps to reduce it. These include:
- Get your blood pressure checked regularly. If it’s high, work with your doctor to lower it. This may include medication and lifestyle changes.
- If you smoke, seek help to quit. This can be difficult, but a doctor can help create a smoking cessation plan that’s right for you.
- If you have risk factors for diabetes, such as family history, get your blood sugar tested.
- If you do have diabetes, keep blood sugar under control.
- Maintain a weight that works for your body.
- Eat a healthy diet that’s high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day.
- Manage stress levels.
- Get your cholesterol checked and take steps to lower high cholesterol if you need to.
- If you have sleep apnea, or believe you do, seek treatment.
- Exercise regularly.
- If you’ve had a heart attack, talk to your doctor about daily low-dose aspirin. This isn’t recommended for women who haven’t had a heart attack or stroke, as it can increase bleeding.
Heart disease is much more common in women than many people realize. In fact, it’s the leading cause of death for women.
Many women who have heart disease don’t have any symptoms. See your doctor early to determine your risk for heart disease and how you can reduce this risk.
If you do have symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible so they can test for heart disease and provide treatment before heart damage occurs.