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Heart disease symptoms and causes may differ in men and women

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. But women often experience different symptoms than their male counterparts, according to Cardiologist Suma Konety, MD.

Heart disease isn’t just a “man’s disease.”

Just ask University of Minnesota Health Cardiologist Suma Konety, MD, who specializes in women’s heart health.

In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. To make matters more complicated, heart disease can be more difficult to detect in women, because their symptoms may vary greatly from the classic symptoms recognized and documented in men.

“There are several misconceptions about heart disease in women, including that it is a ‘man’s disease’ and that all heart attacks are preceded by crushing chest pain,” Konety said. “Symptoms in women are often vague and for this reason can be initially misdiagnosed.”

Unlike men, who often experience significant chest pain, women with heart disease may experience a “constellation of symptoms” that range from jaw pain to extreme sweating to exercise intolerance and heart burn, Konety said.

University of Minnesota Health Cardiologist Suma Konety, MD

“Oftentimes these start several weeks before a heart attack,” she said. “It’s important that women recognize these symptoms and contact their health care providers early for treatment.”

Learn more about our women’s heart health care and services.

Women are also more likely to develop heart disease later in life. During menopause, hormonal changes may lead to increases in blood pressure and cholesterol levels—both of which contribute to heart disease risk. Some risk factors are unique to women. These include polycystic ovarian syndrome and pregnancy-related complications, such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, which can increase the risk of heart disease years later in women. Certain autoimmune diseases, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, may contribute to a higher risk of heart disease as well. Women treated with chemotherapy and chest radiation therapy are also at risk for developing heart disease later in life.

Finally, women are prone to some gender-specific types of heart disease, like coronary microvascular disease or stress-induced cardiomyopathy—known as “broken heart syndrome.”

But there is a silver lining for women, Konety said. Increased awareness around the different and varied heart disease symptoms women experience has led to women seeking care early, which can lead to early and prompt treatment. Women can also make heart-healthy nutrition or lifestyle choices to reduce the risk of heart disease.

These changes include adopting a low-cholesterol, low-sodium diet, increasing physical activity and abstaining from tobacco use.

“The good news is that you control many of your heart disease risk factors by changing your habits,” Konety said.