Healthy Living

Listen to your heart: Recognizing heart disease symptoms differences in men and women

22 February 2024

Heart disease remains a formidable foe in global health, and its impact is felt across all demographics. Surprisingly, it’s not just the leading cause of death among Americans but also holds the title of being the number one killer worldwide. However, what many may not realize is that heart disease shows up differently in men and women. Knowing the differences can make it easier to detect and prevent.

Laurel Soot, MD, FACS, Chief Medical Officer for Providence Health Plan, says it’s common for people to immediately think of chest pain when considering what a heart attack might look like. While this may be true in some cases, Soot says women often experience subtler symptoms that may not be immediately recognized as symptoms of a heart problem. “The difference in symptoms between men and women is an important distinction that can lead to misdiagnosis or delayed treatment,” she says

For men, chest pain or discomfort, often described as a crushing sensation, is a clear symptom of a heart attack. This straightforward indicator prompts many men to seek immediate medical attention, leading to quick intervention and potentially life-saving treatment.

However, for women, the symptoms can be more varied and less noticeable, making them easier to dismiss or attribute to other causes. “Women experiencing a heart attack may report symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, or discomfort in the neck, jaw, or back,” Soot says. “Many of these symptoms are subtler and can be mistaken for other health issues.”

Despite these differences in symptoms, the underlying risk factors for heart disease are consistent across genders. “High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes, and a sedentary lifestyle can all significantly contribute to the development of heart disease in both men and women,” Soot says. “It’s important to embrace heart-healthy habits, regardless of gender.”

Soot recommends the following strategies to help you reduce your risk of heart disease:

  • Regular physical activity like aerobic exercises that get your heart pumping 150 minutes per week.

  • A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a healthy source of protein — like legumes, nuts, or lean meats.

  • Avoid smoking, vaping or using tobacco or nicotine products. Chemicals in tobacco can damage the heart and blood vessels, so avoid both firsthand and secondhand smoke or vapor.

  • Manage conditions like hypertension and diabetes and take preventive measures by managing modifiable risk factors. Get regular checkups to detect heart issues and warning signs early on, before they can cause serious complications.

While heart disease remains a challenging global health issue, understanding the differences in how it presents in men and women is essential for early detection and intervention. By recognizing and addressing these disparities, you can take proactive steps to reduce your risk of heart disease and protect your cardiovascular health.

If you want help navigating and understanding your benefits, you can find an explainer of all preventive care services available to members here. You can also browse the Benefits 101 page that walks through types of coverage plans, costs of services, and more to guide you on your journey.

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