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Time for a Heart-to-Heart About Women’s Heart Health

A decorative image featuring red hearts and multi-ethnic animated women.

This past December, one week after her 64th birthday, a childhood friend had a fatal heart attack. To be honest, I’m still in a bit of shock over this loss, as she had been part of my life and significant events for over 50 years.

My friend’s death prompted me to learn more about symptoms and risks for heart attacks in women, as well as prevention. To all the men reading this article, this is good information for you, too!

Heart disease is the cause of one in every three deaths in the U.S.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women and men. According to the National Institute on Aging, “people age 65 and older are much more likely than younger people to suffer a heart attack, to have a stroke, or to develop coronary heart disease (commonly called heart disease) and heart failure. Heart disease is also a major cause of disability, limiting the activity and eroding the quality of life of millions of older people.”

Heart attack signs and symptoms in women

Women often experience different symptoms than men, though the most common symptom in women is the same as in men: chest pain, pressure, or discomfort that lasts longer than a few minutes or comes and goes.

Chest pain, however, is not always severe or the most noticeable symptom in women. In fact, it’s possible to have a heart attack without chest pain. Women who have experienced a heart attack have described it as chest pressure or tightness. Each woman will present with different symptoms of a heart attack.

Symptoms to be aware of:

  • Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, or comes and goes
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw, or arms
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea, or vomiting
  • Heartburn (indigestion)
  • Clammy sweats, heart flutters, or paleness
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, unusual fatigue, or weakness—especially with exertion
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, with or without chest discomfort

Source: Learn the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack (

WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease encourages taking appropriate action as soon as we recognize symptoms. If you have any of these signs, call 911 immediately and get to a hospital right away.

Unfortunately, many of us still believe that only crushing chest pain is a heart attack symptom and delay seeking care as a result. It’s also not uncommon for healthcare providers to fail to recognize a woman’s heart attack symptoms and attribute them to other causes, such as indigestion.

According to Mayo Clinic, emotional stress can play a role in triggering heart attack symptoms in women as well. Also, we tend to have symptoms more often when resting or when asleep.

Risk factors

While researching cardiovascular health, the message I saw repeatedly is how important it is to not only educate ourselves about heart attack symptoms but understand the risk factors and practice a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Risk factors that increase your chances of heart disease and heart attack include:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Menopause
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • Inflammatory diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, others may increase risk)

Heart healthy lifestyle strategies

Making tweaks in our daily lives can go a long way to improve our overall health and help reduce the risk of heart disease. I’ve adopted a more anti-inflammatory diet and increased my physical activity with tai chi and more walking, which has also helped me to manage stress levels better and sleep more soundly.

Here are the best evidence-based lifestyle strategies for heart health:

  • Engage in regular physical activity and maintain a healthy weight.Exercise is truly the best medicine! Walking, dancing, tai chi, swimming, taking the stairs, gentle yoga, and yard work are fun, effective options. Check your local senior or community center for classes – in-person and online. Check for SilverSneakers or EnhanceÒFitness classes in your area.
  • Eat a healthy diet.Include more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Choose foods that are low in saturated or trans fats, sugar, and salt. The Mediterranean and DASH diets are often cited as the best choices. Check your local senior center for meal, nutrition, and community dining programs as well as cooking classes.
  • Manage stress. Seek support if you are experiencing depression.Ask your health care provider about stress management approaches and for an evaluation if you are concerned about depression. If you are a family caregiver, your own health and daily self-care is essential.
  • Get quality sleep. Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Practicing meditation, increasing physically active, relaxation techniques, and talking with someone you trust can help you cope with stress and sleep better.
  • Quit smoking. Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol.If you choose to drink, do so in moderation.
  • Follow your healthcare provider’s treatment plan.
  • Manage health conditions.High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes increase risk of heart disease.

Ask your doctor

Heart disease is common, but much of it can be prevented by making heart-healthy modifications. Always meet with your healthcare provider before making any adjustments. Know your numbers—blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels, weight. Ask your doctor questions to learn more about your risk for heart disease and what to do about it:

  • What is my risk forheart disease?
  • What are myblood pressure numbers?
  • What are my cholesterolnumbers (including total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides)?
  • What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean that I’m at risk fordiabetes?
  • Do I need to lose weight for my health?
  • What other screening tests do I need to tell me if I’m at risk forheart disease and how to lower my risk?
  • What can you do to help mequit smoking?
  • How muchphysical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
  • What’s aheart-healthy eating plan for me?
  • How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack? If I think I’m having one, what should I do?

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Learn what you can do if you are at increased risk or already have a heart problem. 

Closing thought and further encouragement

What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain! The health of your heart and your brain are connected. Anything you do to strengthen your heart will also benefit your grey matter. By keeping your heart healthy, you lower your risk of stroke and dementia, too.

Here’s to a healthy new year and a healthier new you, one step at a time!

Keri PollackContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County, serves on the Frye Art Museum Creative Aging Programs Advisory Committee and the Zinnia TV Advisory Board.