American Heart Month

4 Ways Heart Disease Affects Men & Women Differently

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By Deirdre Mattina, M.D.

As the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, heart disease is something everyone should take seriously.

What was once thought of as a “man’s disease,” this devastating condition affects both sexes without bias – and accounts for one in four deaths each year. While the heart’s anatomy is pretty much the same, the ways it takes its toll on men versus women is slightly different.

  1. Coronary artery disease occurs in different arteries. In men, coronary artery disease, which is cholesterol blockages of the arteries, occurs more in the large arteries on the surface of the heart. In women, these blockages occur in the smaller vessels that feed the muscles on the walls of the heart.These small vessels are difficult to see, and women usually come to the hospital thinking they are having a heart attack – only to find out after we conduct a coronary angiogram that the major arteries aren’t conflicted at all.
  1. Women are more likely to die from heart disease. Remember those small arteries? They can be silent killers. When a man has a heart episode, it’s easier to perform medical interventions – such as bypass surgeries and stents. But with women, the vessels are too small to really do any sort of intervention. Paired with the fact that they are very difficult to see, that means women tend to have worse outcomes than men.
  1. Men and women respond to stress differently. Being under a lot of stress can lead to heart issues including high blood pressure, and the ways women and men face stress varies. In women, stress is more likely to be caused by emotional responses – feeling overly busy at work, or worrying over being a loving parent or marital issues. In men, stress is sparked more often by physical events – and can be seen in activities like running on a treadmill.In a medical setting, our stress tests are designed to monitor the effects of physical stress – not emotional – which helps pinpoint worrisome activity in men more often than in women.In addition to stress, from my experience, women tend to be in more of a caregiver role – which means their health takes a backseat to the health of their family and they may be more likely to ignore symptoms. When a woman comes in, we often see heart issues that, had she come in earlier, we could have recognized and treated earlier instead of letting them fester and cause more damage.
  1. Our hormones are different. Men are more likely than women to suffer a heart attack before age 55. But once women go through menopause and their hormones shift, their risk of heart disease increases. In addition, women are more susceptible to high blood pressure post-menopause.

In medicine, there have been amazing advancements in the treatment of heart disease – we have tons of medications, procedures and transplants, and yet people are dying more of heart disease than ever before.

Male or female, heart disease is preventable through healthy diet, exercising on a regular basis and avoiding bad habits like smoking. And for women in particular, like the En Vogue song says, “Free your mind, the rest will follow!”

How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).