Heart Disease in Women vs. Men: 6 Big Differences

As much as society might push for equality between men and women, sometimes we can't all be treated the same. In fact, when it comes to cardiovascular health, treating women differently is a positive move that could save lives.

While heart disease is the leading cause of death among both sexes, research shows that lifestyle factors, other medical problems, and basic biological differences mean that men and women have different risk factors. So prevention and treatment methods should vary according to gender. For instance, if you're at risk for heart disease, keep these facts in mind as you work with your health care provider to plan the right course of action.

Smoking hurts women most. A 2011 study shows that female smokers were 25 percent more likely to develop coronary artery disease than male smokers. Of course, smoking still increases men's risks as well, giving both sexes one more reason to try and quit today.

Age matters, but in different ways. Men are more likely to show signs of heart disease at a younger age. Yet, women who have a heart attack under the age of 50 are twice as likely to die compared to men who suffer one at a similar age.

Early diagnosis is more important for women. Women are more likely to die of their first heart attack. Yet early signs of heart disease are often missed in female patients. Plaque along a woman's artery walls may be missed in an angiographic study because it's often evenly distributed (where as men have clumps of plaque). Also, women often do not have classic symptoms of cardiac problems such as chest pain. Instead they may complain of neck pain, nausea, fatigue, or shortness of breath, symptoms that doctors don't necessarily associate with heart disease—so they don't treat them appropriately.

Diabetes is bad for men, worse for women. Diabetes can greatly increase anyone's risk of dying from heart disease, but heart problems are more likely to be fatal among diabetic women.

Complications due to other health problems are more common in women. Because women usually develop cardiovascular disease at a later age than men, they may suffer from additional diseases or health issues that interfere with treatment or recovery. This means that doctors may need to look beyond treatments they normally prescribe for male patients.

Metabolic syndrome plays an important role. Metabolic syndrome refers to a combination of health issues—excess abdominal fat along with high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides. It's a dangerous state for both men and women, but it seems to especially put younger women (age 45 or under) at risk for premature coronary artery disease.

Historically, women have made up a relatively small number of subjects in most cardiovascular studies. But that's changing. As women are starting to be included in these studies more often, researchers are beginning to get a clearer picture of the risks and most effective treatments for women. This will help physicians individualize treatment based on gender and provide both sexes with important information on how to keep themselves healthy.




Barrett-Connor, Elizabeth L., MD "Why Is Diabetes Mellitus a Stronger Risk Factor for Fatal Ischemic Heart Disease in Women Than in Men?" Journal of the American Medical Association 265.5 (2011):627-631. Web. December 26, 2011.

Bedinghaus, Joan, MD, et. al. "Coronary Artery Disease Prevention: What's Different for Women?"American Family Physician 63.7 (2011). Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Web. December 26, 2011.

Turhan, Hasan, et. al. "High prevalence of metabolic syndrome among young women with premature coronary artery disease." Coronary Artery Disease 16.1 (2005): 37-40. Web. December 26, 2011.

"Women and Heart Disease." Women's Heart Foundation. Web. December 30, 2011.