Welcome to Novant Health Go

Health library

Quick Search    

Search Alphabetically



Focus on Health

Women and Heart Disease: Sometimes a Difficult Diagnosis

Heart disease trumps all other diseases, including cancer, as the number one cause of death for American women. Partly, that's because women may suffer from less recognized heart attack symptoms. The condition may also affect a woman's body differently, making it harder to diagnose. Read on to learn more about the dangers of heart disease.

Photo of an older couple outdoors in the snow

Not your "typical" heart attack

Women - more than men - tend to experience uncommon symptoms of a heart attack. In fact, women don't always have the telltale symptom of severe chest pain or pressure. Rather, they are more likely to feel jaw or neck pain. They are also more apt to experience the following:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dizziness

  • Lightheadedness or fainting

  • Upper back pressure

  • Extreme fatigue

These subtler symptoms may lead some women to dismiss the thought of a heart attack. Doctors may also mistake these signs for another condition.

Different types of heart disease

Along with uncommon heart attack symptoms, the type of heart disease affecting a woman can make for a more difficult diagnosis. Doctors use the term "heart disease" as a catch-all for many types of conditions affecting the heart. The most common is coronary heart disease (CHD). It affects both men and women. In CHD, plaque builds up in the large arteries, which may lead to a heart attack.

More women, though, tend to have a less commonly known condition called coronary microvascular disease (CMD). Researchers think women are more prone to CMD because of a drop in estrogen during menopause. Unlike CHD, CMD affects the tiny arteries of the heart where plaque doesn't collect. Typical tests used to diagnose CHD, such as the stress test or angiogram, aren't effective in discovering CMD. They aren't sensitive enough yet to detect damage in the tiny arteries, possibly leading to a misdiagnosis.

Doctors are working hard to find the best way to diagnose all types of heart disease, including CMD, in women. You can do your part, too. Live heart healthy. And know all the potential signs of a heart attack. Seek help immediately if you think you may be having a heart attack. Even a slight delay in diagnosis and treatment may mean the difference between life and death.

Are you at risk for heart disease? Take this quiz to find out.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American College of Cardiology - Women and Heart Disease

American Heart Association - Women and Heart Disease

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute - How Does Heart Disease Affect Women?

February 2013

5 Ways to Prevent Heart Disease

Heart disease may affect women and men differently. But everyone can take the same steps to prevent all types of heart disease. Here are five ways to protect your heart:

  • Fit in some fitness. Physical exercise is important to help keep your heart healthy. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days. The more, the better for your heart muscle.

  • Fill up on heart-healthy foods. Make sure your diet includes lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Skip the sweets-avoid foods high in saturated fat.

  • Stop smoking, if you smoke. Cigarettes can wreak havoc with your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, two key risk factors for heart disease.

  • Mind your middle. Women who have a larger waist are more at risk for heart disease. Talk with your doctor about how you can maintain or achieve a healthy weight.

  • Know your numbers. Have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked regularly.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.