Womens Health
Heart Health Home
Womens Health Home
Heart Health
Aetna Home
Contact Us
Frequently Asked Questions About Women And Heart Health


Do women need to worry about heart disease?

Yes. Among all U.S. women who die each year, one in four dies of heart disease. In 2004, nearly 60 percent more women died of cardiovascular disease (both heart disease and stroke) than from all cancers combined. The older a woman gets, the more likely she is to get heart disease. But women of all ages should be concerned about heart disease. All women should take steps to prevent heart disease.

Both men and women have heart attacks, but more women who have heart attacks die from them. Treatments can limit heart damage but they must be given as soon as possible after a heart attack starts. Ideally, treatment should start within one hour of the first symptoms.

If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911 right away. Tell the operator your symptoms and that you think you're having a heart attack.

How do I know if I have heart disease?

Heart disease often has no symptoms. But, there are some signs to watch for. Chest or arm pain or discomfort can be a symptom of heart disease and a warning sign of a heart attack. Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air), dizziness, nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), abnormal heartbeats, or feeling very tired also are signs. Talk with your doctor if you're having any of these symptoms. Your doctor will take a medical history, do a physical exam, and may order tests.

How can I tell if I am having a heart attack?

For both women and men, the most common sign of a heart attack is pain or discomfort in the center of the chest. The pain or discomfort can be mild or strong. It can last more than a few minutes, or it can go away and come back.

Other common signs of heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air). The shortness of breath often occurs before or along with the chest pain or discomfort.
  • Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach) or vomiting
  • Feeling faint or woozy
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

Women are more likely than men to have these other common signs of a heart attack, particularly shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and pain in the back, neck or jaw. Women are also more likely to have less common signs of a heart attack, including:

  • Heartburn
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Coughing
  • Heart flutters

Sometimes the signs of a heart attack happen suddenly, but they can also develop slowly, over hours, days, and even weeks before a heart attack occurs.

The more heart attack signs that you have, the more likely it is that you are having a heart attack. Also, if you've already had a heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same for another one. Even if you're not sure you're having a heart attack, you should still have it checked out.

If you think you, or someone else, may be having a heart attack, wait no more than a five minutes before calling 911. Tell the operator the symptoms and that you think you or the other perons is having a heart attack.

Should I take a daily aspirin to prevent heart attack?

Aspirin may be helpful for women at high risk, such as women who have already had a heart attack. Aspirin can have serious side effects and may be harmful when mixed with certain medicines. If you're thinking about taking aspirin, talk to your doctor first. If your doctor thinks aspirin is a good choice for you, be sure to take it exactly as your doctor tells you to.

Do women of color need to worry about heart disease?

Yes. African American and Hispanic American/Latina women are more likely to get heart disease because they tend to have more risk factors such as obesity, lack of physical activity, high blood pressure, and diabetes than white women.

What steps can I take to prevent heart disease?

  • Know your blood pressure. Years of high blood pressure can lead to heart disease. People with high blood pressure often have no symptoms, so have your blood pressure checked every 1 to 2 years and get treatment if you need it.

  • Don't smoke. If you smoke, try to quit. If you're having trouble quitting, there are products and programs that can help, such as nicotine patches and gums, support groups and stop-smoking programs. Ask your doctor or nurse for help.

  • Get tested for diabetes. People with diabetes have high blood glucose (blood sugar). People with high blood sugar often have no symptoms, so have your blood sugar checked regularly. Having diabetes raises your chances of getting heart disease. If you have diabetes, your doctor will decide if you need diabetes pills or insulin shots. Your doctor can also help you make a healthy eating and exercise plan.

  • Get your cholesterol and triglyceride levels tested. High blood cholesterol can clog your arteries and keep your heart from getting the blood it needs. This can cause a heart attack. Triglycerides are a form of fat in your blood stream. High levels of triglycerides are linked to heart disease in some people. People with high blood cholesterol or high blood triglycerides often have no symptoms, so have your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels checked regularly. If your levels are high, talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower them. You may be able to lower your both levels by eating better and exercising more. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help lower your cholesterol.

  • Find healthy ways to cope with stress. Lower your stress level by talking to your friends, exercising, or writing in a journal.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight raises your risk for heart disease. Calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) to see if you are at a healthy weight. Healthy food choices and physical activity are important to staying at a healthy weight. Add more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity a minimum 5 days per week.

  • If you drink alcohol, limit it to no more than one drink (one 12 ounce beer, one 5 ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor) a day.

How can I lower my bad cholesterol level?

If you are overweight, losing weight can help lower your total cholesterol and LDL ("bad cholesterol") levels. Calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) to see if you are at a healthy weight. Eat foods low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol. Exercise can help lower LDL ("bad cholesterol") and raise HDL ("good cholesterol"). If your doctor has prescribed medicine to lower your cholesterol, take it exactly as you have been told to.

What type of diet is best to lower cholesterol?

Eat foods low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.

Eat more of these foods: Fish, poultry (chicken, turkey — breast meat or drumstick is best), and lean meats; (bake broil, roast or poach foods; remove the fat and skin before eating); fat-free or low-fat milk, cheeses, and yogurt; fruits and vegetables (try for 5 a day); cereals, breads, rice and pasta made from whole grains, such as oatmeal, rye, whole wheat or whole grain bread, brown rice and whole wheat pasta.

Eat less of these foods: fats (butter, lard) and oils, packaged and processed foods, organ meats (liver, kidney, brains) and egg yolks.

Do birth control pills or using the birth control patch increase my risk for heart disease?

Taking birth control pills is generally safe for young, healthy women if they do not smoke. But birth control pills can pose heart disease risks for some women, especially women older than 35; women with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol; and women who smoke. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about the pill.

If you are using either of these methods of birth control, watch for signs of trouble:

  • Eye problems, such as blurred or double vision
  • Pain in the upper body or arm
  • Problems breathing
  • Spitting up blood
  • Swelling or pain in the leg
  • Breast lumps
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Unusual (not normal) heavy vaginal bleeding

If you have any of these symptoms, call 911.

Does menopausal hormone therapy increase a woman's risk for heart disease?

Menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) can help with some symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, and bone loss, but there are risks, too. For some women, taking hormones can increase their chances of having a heart attack or stroke. If you decide to use hormones, use them at the lowest dose that helps for the shortest time needed. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about MHT.

Last updated February 10, 2014