For Women Only: Why Your Heart Is Different Than a Man’s

February 15th, 2024

For Women Only: Why Your Heart Is Different Than a Man’s.

Women, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart talk about your heart. A woman’s heart is different than a man’s, and knowing the difference can help you take better care of your heart.

In fact, it can even save your life. That’s because heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women — greater than breast cancer and all types of cancer combined.

At Grand View Health, both women and men can receive primary care for their heart from our team of board-certified, fellowship-trained cardiologists. We’re grateful to have three female cardiologists — Alyssa Browning, MD, Miroslawa Jablonski-Cohen, MD, and Michelle Stram, MD — on our team. Let’s hear from them about why a woman’s heart is unique, and how you can stay heart healthy.

What’s so different about our hearts?

To start, the size and structure of the heart itself is different in women. “Women tend to have smaller heart muscle and blood vessels, and the muscular walls of their hearts are thinner,” says Dr. Browning, with Grand View Health Cardiology Buxmont.

This affects the way heart disease develops. Women are more likely to develop disease in the smaller arteries of the heart, creating a condition called microvascular coronary disease.

What’s more, women sometimes aren’t evaluated and treated as aggressively as men. This puts them at risk for heart disease as they age or acquire other heart disease risk factors such as diabetes. Two other factors that impact a woman’s heart health risk:

Hormones: “Estrogen offers some protection for women’s hearts prior to menopause,” says Dr. Jablonski-Cohen, with Grand View Health Cardiology Alderfer and Travis. “But after menopause, that protection lessens.” The risk of heart disease is greater for women who experience menopause before age 40 through a hysterectomy.

Cholesterol: Women are more likely than men to have unhealthy cholesterol levels. Additionally, low levels of HDL cholesterol (“the good cholesterol”) can increase a woman’s heart disease risk. Research shows that women may experience more side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs like statins. “But that shouldn’t stop you from taking care of your cholesterol,” says Dr. Stram, with Grand View Health Cardiology Buxmont. “You and your cardiologist can work on a plan that’s right for you so you can control your cholesterol and reduce your heart disease risk.”

Why women’s heart attack symptoms are different

While chest pain (also called angina) is the most common symptom of a heart attack in women and men, the way women experience angina is different. Women may experience chest pain during their daily activities, like cooking or shopping, while men tend to experience it during exercise. Some women describe the feeling of chest pain as crushing, but other times it may feel like pressure, squeezing or tightness. Chest pain may radiate to the jaw or neck.

The symptoms of a heart attack in women also tend to be more subtle. They can include:

  • Cold sweats
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting or extreme fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Tiredness or a lack of energy

How women can be their own best advocates for heart health

Women may experience delays in getting an accurate diagnosis or treatment for heart disease. What’s even more disturbing is that women may also be less likely to receive lifesaving CPR from a bystander.

A review of more than 39,000 people who suffered from sudden cardiac arrest in the U.S. and Canada showed that only 61% of women who had a heart attack in a public place received lifesaving CPR vs. 68% of men.

Three things women should do to advocate for themselves and other women:

  • Ask about important diagnostic tests, such as EKGs.
  • Ask about treatment options that might be more effective for women.
  • Know your risk factors

If you experience any signs of a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

If you want to learn more about your personal heart disease risk, start with your primary care physician. If you need specialized care from a cardiologist in Bucks or Montgomery Counties, Grand View Health Cardiology Alderfer and Travis and Grand View Health Cardiology Buxmont can help.

And if you need emergency care, Grand View Health is a Level II Adult Trauma Center and home to the David M. Flowers Cardiac Catheterization Lab, which provides emergency care for hearts 24/7.

Learn more about heart and vascular care at Grand View Health.