Should You Be Worried About Coronary Artery Disease?

women and coronary artery disease, Go Red For WomenMADISON - Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease.
It occurs when the arteries that provide oxygen and nutrients to the heart become narrowed or blocked. Blood flow to the heart becomes restricted. A heart attack can occur when blood flow to the heart is completely cut off, and heart muscle is damaged.
Doesn't coronary artery disease affect primarily men?
Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in both women and men in the United States. Recent research has shown that coronary artery disease should no longer be regarded as a disease primarily affecting men since it is the leading cause of death and disability among women.

Are there differences in the way coronary artery disease affects men and women?
Yes, research has uncovered differences in the way that coronary artery disease affects men and women:
  • Symptoms may be very different in women than in men, making recognition of atypical signs by the woman and her physician very important.
  • Onset of coronary artery disease is delayed by 10 to 20 years in women.
  • The lifetime risk of coronary heart disease at age 40 is one in three for women and one in two for men.

What accounts for these differences?


There are a number of factors that contribute to the differences in development of coronary artery disease in men and women.


Biologic risks:

  • Female hormones such as estrogen have a protective effect on the development of atherosclerosis
  • Genes also play a role
  • However, the smaller size of the coronary arteries in women put them at a disadvantage

Acquired risks:

  • Lower socioeconomic and education levels are a risk factor for women whereas for men, suppression of anger and hostility is a more significant risk factor
  • Lifestyle differences, better health habits and lower stress levels may favor women over men
  • However, the fact that many women perform multiple roles in the family and career increases stress levels and places them at greater risk
  • Lack of sufficient physical activity, obesity and smoking increase risks for both genders, although men are more likely to smoke and men tend to encounter greater occupational hazards

Psychosocial differences:

  • Women are more likely to place a greater value on health, especially when they are responsible for their children's health. They are more likely to seek medical help for symptoms than men are and are therefore at an advantage for prevention of heart disease and early intervention.
  • Social isolation, such as an older woman living alone, may increase a woman's risk for heart disease, especially for those who have already experienced a cardiac event and require cardiac rehabilitation.

Health-reporting behavior:

  • Women are more likely than men to admit illness or discomfort and therefore more likely to seek timely intervention. Men are socialized to be stoic and self-reliant.
  • However, women often delay seeking treatment for heart disease because they do not feel they are at risk
  • Early intervention is key to a good prognosis

Can anything be done to influence these risk factors?


There is considerable evidence to suggest that cardiovascular heart disease is largely preventable through modifications in acquired risk factors – lifestyle changes such as improved diet and exercise and reduction in smoking and stress levels.

What is the biggest misconception women have about heart disease?


Most women fear cancer more than heart disease and consider heart disease a remote possibility that is more apt to occur later in life. In reality, women should be more concerned about heart disease as the No. 1 killer, and focus on detection and prevention strategies as early as possible.

What can I do to prevent coronary artery disease?

  • Take an active role in your own health care
  • Become informed about heart disease, its symptoms and prevention strategies
  • Get screened by a health professional to identify risk factors
  • Preventive strategies should be worked out with the advice of a physician to help lessen the risks that have been identified. These may include better diet, more exercise or more frequent screenings.

How can I learn more about heart disease?

  • Information for Patients is available from the American Heart Association
  • You can find information all over the Web - just make sure you're going to reputable Web sites
  • Never institute any therapy or exercise program without first consulting with your physician
  • Research has shown that women who take an active role in their health care have better outcomes

Date Published: 01/23/2008

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