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Categories > Heart Health > Women and heart disease

Is a heart attack in your near future?

Women tend to learn they have coronary artery disease, or CAD, the hard way—they suffer a heart attack. But CAD doesn’t appear suddenly. CAD is the most common kind of heart disease—and is commonly referred to as simply “heart disease.” It develops over years, starting as early as your 20s. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women—27 percent of women will die from it—yet, many women who have heart disease don’t even know they have it.

CAD occurs when fatty deposits build up on blood vessel walls, hardening into plaque. As plaque grows, it narrows the arteries and makes them stiffer. Plaque may rupture or pieces may break off. In response, blood cells called platelets clump there to repair the damage. In the process, a blood clot forms that blocks the artery, leading to a heart attack.

Why CAD seems silent

Many women simply don’t connect CAD’s risk factors, such as their family history, being overweight or having high blood pressure or cholesterol, and their own chance of developing heart disease. CAD also looks and acts differently in women than it does in men. Typical symptoms tend to be more vague and may include:

  • chest discomfort, pressure or achiness instead of crushing chest pain
  • a burning sensation in the chest or upper abdomen
  • shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, sweating or fatigue
  • In addition, plaque in women tends to develop in their smaller blood vessels. An angiogram, a common test used to detect arterial plaque, won’t show buildup in these small blood vessels. Treadmill stress tests, too, are less accurate in women. If your healthcare provider recommends a treadmill stress test, ask to have it done with an echocardiogram for a more comprehensive evaluation.

    Be on guard

    Don’t let a heart attack sneak up on you. Take control of your health and your future with these steps:

  • Evaluate your risk factors. Do you know your cholesterol numbers? Can you afford to shed a few pounds? Make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss your personal risk factors such as your family history, age, smoking status, exercise habits, weight, waist size, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Your provider may use a risk calculator to determine whether you have low, intermediate or high risk for developing heart disease in the next 10 years.
  • Get screened. Although no single test can diagnose coronary artery disease, your provider may order one or more procedures to further evaluate your heart health based on your risk factors or suspicious symptoms. These tests may include:
  • echocardiogram
  • stress test
  • electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • chest X-ray
  • cardiac catheterization
  • coronary angiogram
  • nuclear heart scan
  • electron-beam computed tomography scan
  • Learn where your heart health stands so you can take action to slow or stop CAD’s progression. When it comes to heart disease, ignorance can be deadly.