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Heart Disease and Stroke in Women: Reducing Your Risk - Topic Overview

Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death for women throughout the world. More women die from heart disease than from cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Alzheimer's, and accidents combined. More women than men die from strokes every year.

But women of all ages can help reduce their risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

What causes heart disease and stroke?

A process called hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis camera.gif, can cause heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke.

Atherosclerosis causes fatty deposits called plaque (say "plak") to build up inside blood vessels called arteries. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. The plaque can limit blood flow in the arteries.

Heart disease. When plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, it is called heart disease or coronary artery disease. The heart doesn't get the blood that it needs to work well. Over time, this can weaken or damage the heart. If the blood flow is blocked, it can cause a heart attack.

Stroke. Plaque can also build up in the neck arteries that go to the brain. Plaque in these arteries, called carotid arteries, can limit blood flow to the brain. If the blood flow is blocked, it can cause an ischemic stroke camera.gif or transient ischemic attack (TIA). Another type of stroke is called a hemorrhagic camera.gif (say "heh-muh-RAW-jick") stroke. This type of stroke happens when an artery in the brain leaks or bursts. This causes bleeding inside the brain or near the surface of the brain.

Women are unique. Heart disease seems to happen slightly differently in women compared to how it happens in men. For example, plaque might build up differently in a woman's arteries so that a doctor cannot see a blockage during a cardiac catheterization test. Researchers are trying to understand these differences to help find the best ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat women who have heart disease.

What increases a woman's risk?

Most of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke are the same for women and men. These include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, lack of exercise, and family history.

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