Every year, heart disease kills more people than all forms of cancer combined. However, between 1998 and 2008, the overall number of deaths due to heart disease declined by 30.6 percent. Although it has long been considered a “man's disease,” statistics show that since 1984, more women have died from cardiovascular disease than men.

In 2008, the total number of cases of heart disease among men 20 and older was 39.9 million, compared to 42.7 million among women in that age range. That same year, the mortality rate among men was 392,210 versus 419,730 among women.

Prevalence Among Racial or Ethnic Groups

Heart disease affects women of all racial and ethnic groups. It’s the number one cause of death among black, white, and Hispanic women. Among Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native women, heart disease is second only to cancer. 

In 2008, heart disease was prevalent among 47.3 percent of black women, 33.8 percent of white women, and 30.9 percent of Mexican-American women. Cardiovascular disease caused the deaths of 360,441 white females and 49,819 black females.

Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease

Stroke was prevalent among 2.7 percent of Mexican-American women, 3.3 percent of white women, and 4.4 percent of black women. The mortality rate for white women was 68,787 and 9,488 for black women. Strokes occur in 55,000 more women than men each year. Perhaps this is because women have longer life expectancies than men and strokes tend to occur later in life.

Coronary heart disease—which is caused when plaque builds up in the arteries that feed the heart—is the most common cause of heart disease. It includes angina pectoris (chest pain), myocardial infarction (heart attack), or both. Coronary heart disease was prevalent in 7.5 million women, with 3.1 million having a history of heart attack and five million women having history of chest pain. Sixty-four percent of women who died from coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms.

Mexican-American women had the lowest prevalence of coronary heart disease (5.6 percent), followed by white women (5.8 percent), which accounted for 165,485 deaths. Black women had the highest prevalence (7.6 percent), accounting for 20,491 deaths.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Men and women experience heart attacks differently, and many women having a heart attack confuse their symptoms with something less serious. Symptoms of heart attack include:

  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • pressure in the upper back
  • extreme fatigue
  • discomfort or pain in one or both arms, the stomach, neck, or jaw
  • breaking into a cold sweat

Women age 45 years or older were 26 percent more likely than men to die within a year of a heart attack.

Heart Disease by Risk Factor

Six major factors that increase the risk of heart disease but can be modified or controlled are:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • diabetes
  • physical inactivity
  • high cholesterol

Smokers are two to four times more likely than non-smokers to have coronary heart disease. Those who smoke a pack a day have more than twice the risk of heart attack as those who have never smoked. About 20.4 million women 18 and older are smokers, and many have at least one other risk factor.

In 2008, 53.8 million women had total blood cholesterol of 200 mg/dL or higher. The Mayo Clinic considers total cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dL “borderline high” and those above 240 mg/dL “high.” High blood pressure was prevalent in 39.9 million women and claimed the lives of 34,229. White females made up 26,342 of those deaths, while black females accounted for 7,002. Altogether, women represented 56.1 percent of the 61,005 deaths due to high blood pressure that year.  

Also in 2008, 71.3 million women were overweight or obese. In 2010, only 16.4 percent of women 18 and older met the 2008 Federal Physical Activity guidelines. Of the 18.3 million estimated cases of physician-diagnosed diabetes, 10 million were women. In 2008, 35,207 women died of diabetes, representing 49.9 percent of deaths. 

Other Risk Factors

Other controllable factors that can increase the risk of heart disease are:

  • stress
  • alcohol consumption
  • diet
  • nutrition

Major factors that can't be controlled are increasing age and heredity. About 82 percent of people who die from coronary heart disease are 65 or older, and children whose parents have heart disease are at risk of developing it themselves. Understanding the factors that can lead to heart disease can help lower your risk of developing it. Adopting good eating habits and a more active lifestyle can also help lower your risk. 

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