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Johns Hopkins Health - Heart of a Woman

Summer 2016
Issue No. 33

Heart of a Woman

Date: July 7, 2016

Matters of the Heart: What every woman needs to know to protect her heart health


Matters of the Heart

Romantic poets and pop singers may croon about “two hearts that beat as one.” But those two hearts have some surprising differences when one belongs to a woman and the other to a man. Being aware of women’s unique heart concerns can save lives, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Pamela Ouyang, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Women’s Cardiovascular Health Center. Some key contrasts:

1. Pregnancy can affect the heart years later. When a mom-to-be develops hypertension or gestational diabetes, she’s at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure or diabetes in the next five to 10 years. Her risk of later-life heart disease goes up too.

2. Women are more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases. Lupus, for example, is associated with premature cardiovascular disease, and it strikes women far more often than men.

3. Women tend to fixate on the wrong numbers. “Weight alone is not a risk factor for heart disease,” says Ouyang. You can be thin but have high cholesterol. She also sees many women who avoid getting a far more important number—blood pressure—checked.

4. Menopause can add concerning fat. Neither changing hormones nor hormone replacement therapy raises heart risks, contrary to previous thinking. But after menopause, women tend to carry more of their excess pounds as heart-endangering visceral (belly) fat. Recent Johns Hopkins research shows that male and female heart muscles also change differently with age. Loss of estrogen also may play a role in women. Ongoing studies could lead to gender-based heart failure treatments.

5. Some basic risk factors hit women harder. Smoking carries a 25 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease for women than men. Women tend to develop high blood pressure more as they get older. Having diabetes increases a woman’s risk of developing coronary heart disease three- to fourfold.

6. Women may experience a heart attack differently. Half of women experience the classic chest pain or a sense of pressure, squeezing and tightness. But women are more likely than men to also (or instead) have other symptoms, including shortness of breath, back pain or severe fatigue.

Did You Know?

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States.

Gender-Blind Heart Smarts

All adults can benefit from basic knowledge of the following:

  • Baseline numbers. Simple blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar readings help reveal your heart disease risk.
  • Family history. Having a first-tier family member who had a heart attack or stroke before age 60 increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Heart-healthy habits. Eating right and increasing physical exercise are two powerful ways to lower your chances of developing heart disease.

You’ll find more heart-smart advice by visiting our Healthy Heart website.

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