October 11, 2023

Women’s risk factors and symptoms are easily overlooked.

Caring for your body’s most important muscle — the heart — is essential to everyone’s good health. But for women, finding a team that understands their unique heart-related risk factors and symptoms can make all the difference.

“In the past our understanding of heart disease was based solely on how it affects white men. Now, we know that women experience different symptoms that neither they nor their doctor may realize are heart related,” said Dr. Julie Damp, a cardiologist at Vanderbilt Women’s Heart Center.

Unlike men, who may experience a sudden episode of chest pain, women with heart disease tend to report more subtle symptoms such as shortness of breath, arm or shoulder discomfort, jaw pain or fatigue.

“It’s important for health care providers to understand how women experience heart-related symptoms and to listen when patients tell us something is wrong,” Damp said, adding that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.

Prioritizing women’s heart health

“In the past our understanding of heart disease was based solely on how it affects white men. Now, we know that women experience different symptoms.”

Since women are often the main caregivers in their homes and their symptoms can easily be attributed to other causes, their own heart health often gets overlooked. 

“Women may prioritize other people’s health above their own, but it’s important to recognize the symptoms of heart disease and seek help when you need it,” Damp said.

Having a specialized multidisciplinary team focused on women’s heart health can offer an added level of expertise, comfort and support. 

“The team approach allows us to communicate more effectively and address all the aspects of a woman’s health that affect her overall well-being,” Damp said. 

Pregnancy and menopause: heart disease risk factors?

Pregnancy and childbirth present their own unique risk factors related to women’s heart health. For example, women who experience high blood pressure during pregnancy or who have a baby with low birth weight have an elevated risk of heart disease throughout their lives.

On the other end of the spectrum, menopause is known to raise a woman’s risk of developing heart disease, while the hormonal changes associated with it may complicate her ability to recognize symptoms.

“In addition to focusing on a woman’s current blood pressure and cholesterol, doctors need to ask women about their past pregnancies and if they’ve gone through menopause. Those types of questions are important in assessing a woman’s risk factors,” Damp said.

Taking charge of heart health

Overall, Damp believes that awareness of how heart disease affects women is key to its management and prevention.

“Women need to feel empowered to ask questions about their health care and to feel confident they are truly being heard,” she said.

Vanderbilt Women’s Heart Center

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the U.S., yet it often goes under-diagnosed and under-treated. Vanderbilt Health offers a specialized program tailored to women’s heart health needs, spanning from adolescence and childbirth to menopause. Women’s Heart Center experts work together to treat heart disease with the special needs of women in mind.

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