What Heart Failure Looks Like in Women

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 30, 2023
3 min read

Women are slightly less likely than men to get heart failure -- when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the needs of your body.  It can make you feel run down, wheezy, and swollen with fluids. It’s a lifelong condition, but it can be treated and managed with the help of your doctor.

About 3 million women in the U.S. have it. Some 455,000 more join the ranks each year, and that number is on the rise.

As with other types of heart problems, women and men can get heart failure for different reasons, and it can affect them differently.

You typically get heart failure because of a health issue that weakens, damages, or stiffens your heart. That includes heart attacks, faulty heart valves, and infections. But the causes of heart failure in women and men can vary:

  • High blood pressure. This doubles or triples your chance of getting heart failure. But high blood pressure is much more common in women who have heart failure than in men.
  • Diabetes. Women in their mid-30s to mid-60s who have diabetes are twice as likely to get heart failure as men of that age.
  • Atrial fibrillation. A woman who has an irregular heartbeat may be at higher risk of heart failure than a man who has one.
  • Coronary heart disease. Fat-clogged arteries are less likely to be a main cause for heart failure in women than in men. At the same time, women are more likely to have heart failure, a stroke, or die within 5 years after a heart attack than men.
  • Pregnancy. Although it’s rare, women can have heart failure in the month before or a few months after they give birth. If they do, they’re likely to have it again with future pregnancies, especially if they’re over 35, African-American, or have pregnancy-related diabetes.
  • Menopause. Women who never had children or started menopause early have higher odds of having heart failure. Doctors aren’t sure why this is the case.

Women who get heart failure sometimes respond differently to treatments than men, and the condition can affect them differently:

  • Women tend to get heart failure at an older age. They often have a type where the heart still has a strong contraction, which is measured by the heart’s ability to pump blood. The heart is unable to relax and becomes stiff.
  • Women survive longer with heart failure than men. Doctors aren’t sure why, but it could be because men generally have a more serious underlying medical condition, such as coronary heart disease as opposed to high blood pressure.
  • The tradeoff for living longer with heart failure is that women may be less able to exercise, are in the hospital more often, and are more likely to be depressed.
  • Different medications and therapies for heart failure may work better in women. They include:
    • Beta-blockers. They are sometimes used to treat high blood pressure.
    • Aldosterone antagonists. They help the body get rid of water.
    • Pacemakers. These devices control your heartbeat.