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What Does Sex Have To Do With Heart Disease?

Your Local Health | Written by BJ Towe

Everyone knows that men and women are very different. But not everyone knows that our hearts are as well not to scare you, but heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States — and men and women share in it pretty much equally. “One person will have a heart attack every 34 seconds in the United States,” says Nasser Khan, M.D., a Cardiologist with The Iowa Clinic. The good news: Understanding how your gender affects your risk and symptoms of the disease can literally save your life.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

You may think the risk factors for heart disease are the same for men and women. And, to a large degree, they are. Age, family history, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and the use of tobacco or alcohol are all factors in whether a person — man or woman — will develop cardiovascular disease or stroke. But the specifics of most of these are not the same.

For example, says Dr. Khan, “if you’re a woman who hasn’t yet reached menopause, the hormone estrogen provides a protective benefit to your heart. As a result, women typically don’t develop heart disease until 10 years later than men.”

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Men and women also part ways when it comes to the symptoms of heart attack. “For men, we think about the classic chest pain; a pressure-like pain in the mid-chest that radiates toward one or both shoulders, arms, or jaw. Sometimes this is accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, or vomiting,” says Khan.

“Chest pain is also the number-one symptom for women, but women may not have chest pain at all. Their symptoms might be only shortness of breath, pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, or vomiting,” he says.  These symptoms can be too easily ignored or mistaken for other conditions, such as heartburn, anxiety, stress, and even hypochondria.

Even when women go to the emergency room, their atypical symptoms can delay proper diagnosis and treatment. A delay in treatment reduces a heart attack patient’s odds of survival and having a normal, healthy life.

Khan says, “Forty-two percent of women will die in the first year after heart attack, compared to just 24 percent of men.” According to a Harvard University study, 46 percent of women who survive a heart attack will be disabled by heart failure within six years.

For these reasons, Khan says, “It’s imperative for women to know how their symptoms for heart disease are different and — when any of those symptoms occur — get to the hospital early. And don’t drive — call 9-1-1.

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