The X Factor: How Heart Disease Affects Men and Women Differently

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By Austin O’Malley

Heart disease may be the number one worldwide killer of both men and women, but that doesn’t mean it affects us in the same way. In fact, there are some key differences in how the condition manifests—and knowing what they are is one of the first steps in warding it off. Neica Goldberg, M.D., author of Total Heart Care highlights a few of the unique factors in men and women, along with a few tips that can benefit us all:

Women and Heart Disease

  • One third of women have some form of cardiovascular disease.
  • Women tend to develop heart disease 10 years later than men. Scientists believe the estrogen produced prior to menopause helps regulate cholesterol, decreasing heart attack risk, according to the American Heart Association.
  • However, when heart attacks strike early—before age 50—they’re twice as likely as men’s to be fatal.
  • Heart attack symptoms in women tend to be different, and often more subtle, than those in men. According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, early heart attack signs in women can mimic the flu: extreme weakness, unusual fatigue, headaches, nausea and stomach upset. Chest pain may not be present. Other commonly reported symptoms are sleep disturbance, jaw pain, and shortness of breath.

Men and Heart Disease

  • The average age for men to have their first heart attack is 66.
  • Men are at greater risk for heart attacks, even after women experience menopause according to the AHA. One possible reason why: Much lower levels of estrogen.
  • Arterial plaque in men tends to form in clumps, which makes it easier to find, according to WHF. Women’s tend to develop more evenly throughout blood vessel walls, and thus, more difficult to spot.
  • Typical male symptoms of heart attack include chest discomfort or pain, upper body pain, stomach pain, shortness of breath, anxiety, lightheadedness and sweating.

What everyone needs to know:
If you experience any of the heart attack symptoms described above—regardless of your sex—call 911. Early, rapid treatment offers the best odds for treatment. If it turns out to be a false alarm, so be it. You can rest easier knowing that you put your health, and yourself, first.

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