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The Silent Killer: Understanding the #1 Cause of Death for Women in the U.S

a picture of a women's heart

The #1 Killer of Women in the U.S. is Heart Disease

According to the CDC, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), heart disease (cardiovascular disease) refers to several types of heart conditions. Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the U.S. The most common type of heart disease in the U.S. is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD develops slowly and causes the thickening and narrowing of the coronary arteries (the arteries that bring blood to the heart). A heart attack can occur due to the damaged or blocked arteries.

Heart disease also includes these other heart conditions: high blood pressure, cardiac arrest (heart attack), congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, peripheral artery disease, stroke and congenital heart disease. All of these heart conditions, including (CAD), cause diseased vessels, structural problems and blood clots.


What Is the Heart?

The heart is a muscular organ about the size of a fist. It is located just behind and slightly left of the breastbone. The heart has four chambers: two upper (right and left atrium) and two lower (right and left ventricle).

a picture of the heart

a picture of a cross-section of the heart and blood vessels

A cross-section of the heart and blood vessels (arteries in red, veins in blue)

a picture of parts of the heart (labeled)

Parts of the Heart (labeled)


What Are The 5 Primary Functions of the Heart?


  • Pumps blood, which contains oxygen and nutrients, to all parts of the body.

  • Controls the rhythm and speed of heart rate.

  • Maintains your blood pressure.

  • The right side of the heart receives oxygen-poor blood from the veins and pumps it to the lungs to pick up oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide.

  • The left side of the heart receives oxygen-rich blood from your lungs and pumps it through the arteries to the rest of the body.


The Findings Of A Research Study of Aging Hearts


In 2015, a research study of MRI scans of aging male and female hearts was published online in the journal of Radiology. The study was led by John Hopkins University. The MRI scans show that male and female hearts grow old differently in the following ways:

  • In both sexes, the left ventricle (the main chamber of the heart) gets smaller with time. A smaller ventricle results in less blood entering the heart and less blood pumped out to the rest of the body.

  • In men, the heart muscle that encircles the main chamber (left ventricle) grows bigger and thicker with age.

  • In women, the heart muscle that encircles the main chamber (left ventricle) retains its size or gets somewhat smaller.


What Are The Differences Between a Female and Male Heart?


  • A women's heart is smaller than a man's heart.

  • A woman's heart pumps faster but ejects less blood than a man's heart.

  • A woman's heart walls are thinner, and veins are finer than a man's heart.

  • In women, stress causes the pulse to rise and the heart to pump more blood. The pulse is the number of times the heart beats per minute (the heart rate). The pulse can also indicate the heart rhythm (controlled by electrical signals)

  • In men, stress causes the arteries to constrict and blood pressure to rise.


What Are The 7 Main Causes of Heart Disease?


causes of heart disease

1. Diet

  • Eating less fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods such as breads, cereals and pastas.

  • Eating less low protein foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy products and eggs.

  • Eating less monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as olive, canola, vegetable and nut oils, avocados, nuts and seeds.

  • Eat more refined and processed foods and fast foods.

  • Eat more sodium (salt) and saturated fats such as butter, hydrogenated margarine and shortening.

2. Lifestyle

  • Eating an Unhealthy Diet

  • Not Exercising & Staying Active Every Day

  • Not Maintaining a Healthy Weight

  • Smoking

  • Not Reducing Stress

  • Not Managing Blood Pressure, Diabetes and Cholesterol

3. Aging

  • Blood vessels can stiffen during normal aging.

  • Systolic blood pressure rises with age.

  • Heart beats slower during physical activity.

  • Plague builds up in arteries as we age.

4. Genetics

  • Risks may increase when there is a family history of heart disease.

  • Family members are encouraged to get regular screenings for risk factors.

5. Smoking

  • Smoking causes the blood in arteries to thicken and form blood clots.

  • Increases plague buildup in blood vessels.

6. Diabetes

  • High glucose levels can damage blood vessels.

  • Increases the chance of heart disease at an earlier age.

7. Gender

  • Women risk factors for heart disease are diabetes, depression, sustained stress.

  • Men risk factors for heart disease are low testosterone levels, erectile dysfunction.

  • Women are more at risk for a stroke due to high blood pressure during pregnancy, hormonal medications and a longer life expectancy.

  • Women may be unaware of heart disease concerns and have unique risk factors and symptoms.

  • Men develop heart disease at a younger age and have a higher risk of heart attack, but women are more likely to die from heart attack.


Why Are Women More At Risk for Heart Disease?


a picture of women of different ethnic backgrounds

  • Women symptoms often are different from a man's symptoms.

  • Women may be diagnosed less often with heart disease.

  • Women's hearts are smaller and pump faster.

  • Women may not feel the crushing chest pain of a heart attack but may describe it as chest pressure, aching or tightness.

  • Women symptoms may occur while resting or while asleep.

  • Women are less likely to receive preventative treatment, guidance or lifestyle changes for their heart health.

  • Women have a tendency to downgrade symptoms.

  • Women may have many symptoms but will generally describe symptoms as "I don't feel well."

  • Women are more likely to have a heart attack because of vague symptoms or no symptoms at all.

  • The risk of a heart attack increases after menopause.


What Are the Symptoms of Heart Disease That Women May Overlook?


  • Fatigue

  • Feeling a sense of dread

  • Sweating

  • Lightheaded

  • Dizziness

  • Shortness of breath

  • Nausea

  • Pain (jaw, neck, shoulder, arms, abdomen, back)

  • Deep fatigue and disturbed sleep a month or two before heart attack


How To Reduce Heart Disease Risk


Reduce Heart Attack Risk picture

  • Get an annual physical exam

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Exercise regularly

  • Maintain a healthy weight

  • Don't smoke

  • Avoid or limit alcohol

  • Manage your stress


How Is Heart Disease Diagnosed and Treated?


How Heart Disease is Diagnosed

  • Physical Exam

  • Blood Tests

  • Cardiovascular Diagnostic & Screening Tests (such as EKG/ECG (electrocardiogram), chest x-ray, cardiac MRI)

What Are the Treatments for Heart Disease

  • Lifestyle Changes

  • Medications

  • Surgery


Cardiovascular disease in women remains under-recognized and under-treated. Research studies of heart disease are identifying the gender differences that will improve the prevention, diagnosis, treatment in men and women.

You may find additional resource information about heart disease from the American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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