What Heart Failure Looks Like in Women

Women are slightly less likely than men to get heart failure -- when your heart is too weak to pump enough blood through 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.

Different Causes

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 . A woman in her mid-30s to mid-60s who has diabetes is twice as likely to get heart failure as a man 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.

Different Outcomes

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 get it with stronger hearts, measured by the heart’s ability to pump blood. The heart is unable to relax and becomes stiff.
  • Women survive longer with heart failure. 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 typically are 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.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Suzanne R. Steinbaum, MD on July 06, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands: “Differences between men and women with heart failure.”

American Heart Association: “Women & Cardiovascular Disease: Statistical Fact Sheet 2015 Update,” “Heart failure projected to increase dramatically, according to new statistics,” “Common Myths About Heart Disease.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Heart Disease: Differences in Men and Women.”

The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease: “Congestive Heart Failure,” “Heart Failure: Symptoms in Women, Objective 1.”

Journal of the American College of Cardiology: “Heart Failure: Women Different than Men,” "Reproductive Factors and Incidence of Heart Failure Hospitalization in the Women’s Health Initiative.”

Mayo Clinic: “Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors,” “Heart failure.”

Harvard Health Publications: “Gender matters: Heart disease risk in women,” “Heart failure in women.”

Revista Espanola de Cardiologia (Spain): “Heart Failure: Are Women Different?”

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “What are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure?”

Cleveland Clinic: “Heart Failure in Women.”

European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing: “Gender differences in patients with heart failure.”

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