A woman checking her blood pressure

Women, We Need To Have a Heart to Heart

February 03, 2022

Although women make up over half of the population diagnosed with heart disease, information about symptoms and outcomes unique to them remain limited as clinical trials have focused mostly on men. Because heart problems present differently between men and women, it's important to maintain an open dialogue with your primary care doctor and know when you should speak up.

Working with Limited Science

"Women make up 54% of people with heart disease, but they are completely underrepresented in randomized clinical trials," says Jennifer Schwartz, MD, FHRS, a physician in lifestyle health and wellness at Beth Israel Lahey Health who is board-certified in internal medicine, cardiology, electrophysiology, and obesity medicine. "So the challenge we have as physicians is how to diagnose and treat women because we just don't have a lot of data."

As a result, doctors must rely on using male-oriented data to treat their female patients. The issue, however, lies in the fact that heart issues don't present the same way between men and women.

Young Women

Information regarding women and heart disease tends to skew older, but that doesn't mean young women aren't affected. When it comes to women ages 25-35, some of the most common heart-related issues Dr. Schwartz sees are fainting and Tachycardia, an elevated heart rate.

"Women of that age group are often given a diagnosis of panic attacks or anxiety when they really could be arrhythmias. So I tell my patients it's not normal to have elevated heart rates. Fainting is also not normal. It may be benign, but it's incumbent upon the providers to rule out anything serious."

Working Moms

The working mom has a full plate at all times. She's always on the move and taking care of others, but she constantly puts herself last. That sounds stressful, right?

Studies show that working moms experience up to 40% more stress than women without children. Although we need more research to determine how stress impacts heart disease, the American Heart Association found that stress is directly related to certain behaviors that can increase the risk of heart disease, such as smoking and overeating.

Older Women

Estrogen protects the heart and as women get older, they lose estrogen with perimenopause. For that reason, the risk of developing heart disease increases with age. Current statistics show that women ages 55 and older make up more than half of women with heart disease. They're also at a higher risk for atrial fibrillation, or AFib, which produces an irregular heartbeat and leads to an increased risk of stroke.

To reduce these risks, Dr. Schwartz recommends knowing your numbers. "Know what your BMI is, know your cholesterol level, know your blood pressure level," she says. "Women need to ask questions of their physicians and be aware of how symptoms may change."

If you have heart concerns, don't wait to speak to your primary care doctor or seek out a cardiologist.