For some time, we’ve known that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, yet despite the proven studies and reports, risk factors are often missed during routine exams. It can be said that physicians may have missed the signs or patients may have failed to report symptoms, believing that a momentary discomfort was nothing more than minor aches and pains. Or it can be said that female patients didn’t show the “typical” warning signs of serious heart issues, but the medical community now knows that women’s symptoms vary widely from those of their male countertops.

Anyone who has spent any time observing a woman’s typical day can tell you that women are exponentially more active than men. That’s not just in the physical sense. Women in our society tend to devote their days to work inside or outside of the home, tending to children, running a household, fielding calls, coordinating play dates, keeping the family’s master calendar, and so much more. The simple truth is, with so much to keep track of on a daily basis, women don’t often have time to worry about their well-being. Their personal health is usually the last thing they think about. It might be on a to-do list, but never really sees the light of day…until something goes terribly wrong.

Although heart health might be the last thing on a woman’s to-do list, it most assuredly could pose a very real threat to one’s health.

Natural Hormonal changes in women can wreak havoc on their heart health. For example, menopause can have a significant impact on heart function and/or increasing the likelihood of developing major and minor heart issues.

So, what can a woman do to prevent coronary heart disease?

First, you must remember that what looks typical for a man is not the same for a woman. Women’s symptoms are classified as atypical. That means routine testing may not produce accurate results. Be your own advocate, because unfortunately, not every medical professional has embraced the idea that women present differently than men.

Women tend to be almost a decade older than men when they are finally diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Chest pain is not typical in women. Instead, women may complain of a burning sensation or tenderness in areas like the back, arms, jaw, or other upper body areas (but not exclusively those areas!).

If you’re experiencing any of those symptoms or any alarming discomfort at all, demand that your doctor considers CAD. Believe it or not, this will not be the first or second diagnosis a doctor would consider. This is especially important if you’re experiencing any musculoskeletal pain or stomach issues like nausea, vomiting, or indigestion. Also, take note of feelings of shortness of breath or unexplained fatigue. Again, women present differently. If your doctor needs a gentle reminder of this, it is in your best interest to alert him or her of this.

Every woman must learn about their risk for developing heart disease. Be aware of known risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and family history of heart disease. Review and reevaluate your diet. Ensure that you’re making heart-healthy food choices. Get enough exercise. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, not stops and starts, but a full night’s rest. Make sure you’re paying attention to any problems you might be having, no matter how insignificant they might seem. Doing so could save your life.

By Joaquin N Diego, MD, FCCP, FACC