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Are Women at Risk for Heart Disease?

What is Heart Disease?

The term heart disease can mean any one of a number of different heart problems. The most common kind of heart disease is coronary heart disease. This happens when a fatty substance called plaque clogs the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to the heart. If a blood vessel becomes completely blocked, a heart attack can happen.

How does Heart Disease affect Women?

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in Canada for women over the age of 55. Women are more likely to die from heart disease than from any other disease.

The clogging of blood vessels happens slowly. The damage that it causes to the heart over time may make it harder to do everyday activities.

What puts Women at Risk for Heart Disease?

  • Menopause: When women reach menopause, their risk of developing heart disease increases. Researchers are not exactly sure why this happens. It has been suspected that this increased risk is possibly related to a drop in the hormone estrogen that happens in women at menopause. Until recently, it was thought that hormone therapy could help reduce this risk for menopausal women. However, recent studies have shown that taking certain types of hormones (estrogen with progestin) can actually increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer for some women. As a result of these studies, hormone therapy isn't recommended any more to prevent heart disease, although it may be helpful for some women in treating other symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes. Women should always talk to their health care providers to decide if hormone therapy is right for them.
  • Hypertension: High blood pressure, or hypertension, makes the heart work harder than normal and puts extra stress on the heart muscle. High blood pressure also damages blood vessel walls and makes them more likely to get clogged.
  • Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in foods that is an essential nutrient for the body. However, too much cholesterol can block arteries and increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Diabetes: The risk of heart disease is greater for women with diabetes because their blood sugar level is often much higher than normal. High blood sugar can damage the arteries that supply blood to the heart. This damage makes it easier for plaque to form in the arteries.
  • Tobacco smoke: Female smokers under the age of 50 have a higher risk of having a heart attack than non-smoking women. The risk is even higher for female smokers over 35 who are also taking birth control pills. Frequent exposure to second-hand smoke also puts non-smoking women at greater risk.
  • Physical inactivity: Inactive women have twice the risk of developing heart disease than active women. Thirty minutes of physical activity, 4 to 6 times a week, helps to keep the heart strong and prevent heart disease.
  • Excess body weight: The more overweight a woman is, the higher her risk is of developing heart disease. Even losing a small amount of extra weight can help reduce the risk.
  • Family history: A woman's risk for developing heart disease increases if she has any blood relatives that were diagnosed with heart disease before the age of 55.
  • Race: While women of all races are at risk of developing heart disease, the risk is higher for Black and South Asian women.
  • Social and economic factors: Women with low levels of education and income face a higher risk of heart disease. This may be because they experience barriers to following healthy behaviors that would prevent the disease.

Additional Resources

Selected Books:

Women Are Not Small Men: Life-Saving Strategies for Preventing and Healing Heart Disease in Women. Nieca Goldberg, 2003.

The Women's Heart Book: The Complete Guide to Your Healthy Heart. Frederic J. Pashkow & Charlotte Libow, 2001.

Prepared by the Canadian Women's Health Network and revised by womenshealthmatters.ca at the New Women's College Hospital. This FAQ appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site.