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Heart Disease: Why Women Need To Watch For The Signs

Doctor is using a stethoscope to hear the heart rate.

Heart disease now tops breast cancer as the leading cause of death for women.

Dr. Shelley Hall is chief of Transplant Cardiology, MCS and Advanced Heart Failure of Baylor University Medical Center. She told KERA’s Sam Baker our lifestyle habits of the last 50 to 100 years have not served us well.


Why There Are Higher Rates Of Heart Disease Death In Women

We've become less active. We're more sedentary. We have less healthy foods. Easier to get foods are the least healthy, the healthiest foods are the most expensive. And with the poor food and the poor exercise habits, we have more diabetes, more hypertension, particularly in African Americans. They have much more hypertension than Caucasians, just genetically. So they have an additional negative risk factor with more hypertension.

Heart Disease Is Harder To Recognize And Diagnose

Certainly in women. Most people have heard of the classic “elephant sitting on your chest” type of description, but women tend to have more vague symptoms: Nausea, jaw, or neck pain instead of chest pain.

My mother died of a heart attack at age 54 in my kitchen. She thought she'd had food poisoning. She was nauseated all night and didn't feel well, and didn't know she had a heart attack. Three days later, her heart ruptured and she died. We only found that out at autopsy. Women have to be more in tune with their bodies.

Women often delay seeking care. They're so busy taking care of everybody else that they kind of minimize their own issues and they tend not to seek care.

Age is a factor as well. Women tend to get disease about a decade later than men. They're not quite as active as they used to be. So, there are lots of rationalizations that can occur as women start to have symptoms. And, then because they don't have classic symptoms, there are delays and recognition by healthcare that it actually is heart disease.

Symptoms Of Heart Disease

Blockages in the heart arteries where there is an acute blockage, which is a heart attack, the classic is the heavy pressure on the chest. There can also be a pressure, a tight sensation in the jaw. The shoulder arm, usually it's associated with shortness of breath. It can be nausea as well.

Chest discomfort with activity is angina and should be checked out for heart disease.

Heart failure is when the heart either doesn't pump well or it doesn't relax well. That affects people with their breathing. So they get short of breath when they try and do things, they get short of breath. When they lay down, they start to retain fluid in their legs or belly start to get swollen. Those are all signs of heart failure, and it can be either a weak heart or a stiff heart.

Can heart disease be cured, treated, or at least managed?

Prevention is always the best cure:

  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating healthy so you don't get overweight.
  • If you have high blood pressure, a low salt diet.
  • Taking blood pressure medicines to keep that controlled.
  • If you're a diabetic, keeping track of your blood sugars.
  • If you had high cholesterol, take proper medications.
  • Don't smoke.

We can't fight our genetics. There are families with genetic predispositions for getting it. And the best thing you can do is to control all the risk factors as most possible.

Once you have the disease, then the key is working with your physician on the best management strategy for heart failure. That's often a collection of different types of medications. It's for blockages in the heart arteries. It may be requiring a stent or even bypass surgery to try and get better circulation to the heart.

But you know, the first is preventing. The second is recognizing there's a problem and getting it evaluated. And then finally, if you do have it, it's working with your physician to, for the best treatment plan for you.

Lifestyle Changes Can Be The Biggest Hurdle

For many people, it's easier to take pills than to try and get that exercise in every day or eat better. But ultimately trying to do all of those preventative things will give you a better lifestyle and better health, because there's always a risk with every foreign chemical that you put into your body. You might be that one person that has the weird side effect. So if you could change your life so that you don't need to take pills, it's always better.


CDC: Women and Heart Disease

Gender differences in coronary heart disease

Women or Men — Who Has a Higher Risk of Heart Attack?

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.