Heart disease could be affecting you — do you know the signs?

#1 Risk factors

Whether you’re a man or a woman, there are several risk factors for heart disease that impact both sexes equally. Among those are tobacco use, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and lack of physical activity. But for women, doctors say there are additional risk factors and warning signs to watch out for.

Dr. Sheila Sahni, an interventional cardiologist and the director of the women’s heart program at Sahni Heart Center in Clark, New Jersey, tells Yahoo Life, “Factors unique to women include autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, a history of breast cancer and having received chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the chest, as well as psychiatric issues such as depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness.”

Sahni also says pregnancy can serve as a woman’s first cardiac stress test. “Conditions such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preeclampsia – if you had them when you were pregnant, they can actually affect your chances of developing heart disease long after your pregnancy is over.”

#2 Signs and symptoms

Because women were excluded from early heart disease studies, many of our ideas about what a heart attack victim looks like come from the male perspective. “When men present with heart attacks, they tend to present similar to how we've seen it depicted in Hollywood – crushing chest pain in the center of their chest or their jaw clenching,” explains Sahni. “But when it comes to a woman, the signs and symptoms can be a lot more subtle.”

Women experiencing a heart attack may feel a shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea or even heartburn. These less dramatic symptoms cause women to wait more than 30 percent longer than men before they head to the hospital. And once there, women are less likely to be properly diagnosed.

Sahni advises women that “any new symptom between the navel and the nose that comes on with exertion, whether physical or emotional, and goes away with rest, needs to get checked out right away by a doctor.”

#3 Causes and effects

The reason why heart attacks in men tend to be more dramatic can be attributed to what’s going on inside the body. Sahni says male heart attack patients typically suffer a full blockage within the heart’s blood vessels, abruptly stopping the flow of blood to the heart. In contrast, when a woman has a heart attack, it often stems from a slow deterioration of the arteries. “So if you imagine a scenario of pipes, if a pipe is fully clogged, that creates a dramatic backup,” says Sahni. “But if a pipe slowly erodes over time, the presentation might be more subtle.”

But no matter what your gender is, Sahni says knowing your risk factors, signs and symptoms is key to staying heart healthy. “Knowledge is power,” says Sahni. “Educate yourself so you can be your own heart hero and prevent heart disease in your own life.”

Video Transcript

- While heart disease is the leading cause of death between men and women, the signs that something is wrong can be easily overlooked. Here are the three major ways that heart health differs between men and women. Men and women actually share many of the same risk factors that we're used to hearing about-- tobacco use, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight, lack of physical activity genetics, and age.

But there are a number of risk factors that are unique to women-- gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, preeclampsia. These are conditions that if you have one when you were pregnant, they can actually affect your chances of developing heart disease long after your pregnancy is over. Other risk factors unique to women include autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, being a breast cancer survivor, or getting chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the chest, menopause or being postmenopausal or even depression and other forms of mental illness.

Men tend to present with symptoms of a heart attack that we've often seen depicted in the media-- crushing chest pain in the center of their chest, clenching their fist, or even their jaw. Right before a heart attack, we have found that more men report some new physical activity or physical exertion such as running or shoveling snow. Whereas for women, there is often an emotional stressor that preceded their heart attack. The signs and symptoms can be a lot more subtle.

While the majority of women will likely feel some new discomfort in their upper body-- shortness of breath, new fatigue, generalized malaise, nausea, and even heartburn. Women need to know that any new symptom between the navel and the nose that comes on with exertion, whether physical or emotional, and goes away with rest, needs to get checked out right away by a doctor.

One of the reasons the symptoms of heart attacks could differ between men and women that the pathology has been shown to be different. More men tend to present with a full-on blockage from a plaque that ruptured and closed off their artery, leading to their dramatic presentation. But for women, they are more commonly found to have plaque erosion instead of plaque rupture, where their blood vessel slowly erodes over time, and the presentation might be more subtle. Knowledge is power. Educate yourself so you can beat your own heart hero and prevent heart disease in your own life.

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