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Women and Heart Disease: Key Facts You Need to Know

Experts share information about symptoms and risks that even the most health-savvy people may not know.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Which one of the following statements is true? 

  • Each year, heart disease claims the lives of more women then breast cancer and lung cancer combined.
  • A greater percentage of women die within one year of a heart attack than men.
  • The death rate of African-American women due to cardiovascular disease is greater than white women. 
  • Diabetes is a risk factor for heart disease.

The answer: All of them. And experts say they represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the facts that many women, and even some doctors, don't realize about women and heart disease.

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"Women tend to think that breast cancer is their biggest health threat. And while it's important, heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of women, even young women. But that message just hasn't been fully recognized," says cardiologist Nicea Goldberg, MD, director of the Women's Heart Program at NYU Medical Center and author of the new book Complete Woman's Guide to Women's Health.

Dave Woynarowski, MD, agrees. "If you look [at] how many women get heart attacks and how many women die of heart attacks, you would be stunned; still, many women just don't seem to realize how great a threat heart disease really is," says Woynarowski, an internal medicine specialist from West Reading, Pa.

The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that 42.1 million women had cardiovascular disease in 2004, resulting in some 461,000 deaths.

Moreover, Woynarowski says too often the symptoms and risk factors of heart disease go unnoticed, sometimes even by doctors.

"Even in the emergency room, many times doctors will attribute a woman's symptoms to something other than heart disease. There is simply not enough awareness on either side of the stethoscope," he says.

To help get up to speed, take WebMD's Women's Heart Health Quiz. Find out what you need to know about the symptoms and risk factors of heart disease in women, and what steps you and your doctor can take to protect you.

The WebMD Women's Heart Health Quiz

1. True or False: As long as my cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, I don't have to worry about having a heart attack.

Answer: False. While both cholesterol and blood pressure are contributing factors to heart disease, Goldberg says there's clearly not enough emphasis on the other factors that can also play a role.

"Family history is of major importance. So is weight and blood sugar. I don't see enough women who are overweight or who have diabetes getting their hearts checked, when these are leading risk factors for heart disease," says Goldberg. 

2. True or False:  Estrogen and other hormones protect women from heart disease, so young women don't have to worry. 

Answer: False. "One of the biggest misconceptions out there right now is that young women don't get heart disease or heart attacks, or that they don't have to worry about the risk factors linked to heart disease. But nothing could be farther form the truth," says J. Julia Shin, MD, a cardiologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Young women do get heart attacks, says Shin, and they are often fatal.

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