Heart Health

Part of: Women's Health

Heart disease is not just a man's disease

Having a healthy heart is central to good health. Although heart disease is as common in women as it is in men, most women are not aware of this fact and that their symptoms may differ from men's.

In fact, many women are not able to recognise that they are having a heart attack and delay seeking help, leading to more complications.

We look at the types of heart disease that are more common to women, the tell-tale symptoms of heart disease in women and how women can reduce their risks.

How is heart disease in women different?

Women tend to develop heart disease up to a decade later than men, thanks to the natural protection of their hormones before menopause.

Some types of heart disease are more common in, or even unique to women. These include microvascular ischaemia, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (also known as broken heart syndrome), and peri-partum cardiomyopathy (which can happen during the final month of pregnancy).

What are the symptoms of heart disease in women?

Some women with heart disease also do not experience the classic warning symptoms of a heart attack, such as a crushing chest pain and shortness of breath. They may even have a heart attack without chest pain.

Learn more: Heart health for women

Risk factors for heart disease in women

Heart disease patients may suffer from common risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels and obesity. However, there are some risk factors that play a bigger role in women developing heart disease. They are:

  • Diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Smoking
  • Mental stress
  • Depression
  • Lack of physical activity

Learn more: How to recognise heart disease in women

Taking care of your heart

It is possible to reduce your risk of heart disease by adopting a heart healthy lifestyle. You can start by:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight, by staying within a normal body mass index (BMI) range
  • Quitting smoking
  • Managing your stress levels, by using relaxation techniques
  • Switching to a heart-healthy, balanced diet that is low in saturated fat and salt, and incorporates whole grains, a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Taking your prescribed medication, such as blood thinners (aspirin), those that lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and diabetic medication

Preventive health screening is an effective way to identify hidden heart health risks. The earlier you go for regular health screening, the earlier risk factors for heart diseases can be identified and treated.

Did you know? Heart disease and stroke combined is the leading cause of death for women in Singapore but only 9% of Singaporean women are aware of this fact, according to a national survey.

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Heart conditions in women

Almost as many women as men suffer from heart disease. Our heart specialists pay extra attention to how women's hearts are different from men's, as well as the cardiovascular conditions that are unique to women.

The most common heart disease in women remains coronary artery disease. It develops when fatty deposits, called plaque, build up in the blood vessels (arteries) that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. Over time, these blood vessels become narrowed.

When blood flow to your heart is blocked and it is deprived of oxygen, a heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs. The most common heart attack symptom for both men and women is a crushing chest pain that may radiate to the jaws or arms.

However, women may experience less common heart attack symptoms, such as:

  • Pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or even stomach
  • Gradual or sudden pain which may come and go, and is often mistaken as heartburn, gastritis or muscle ache
  • Shortness of breath, nausea or lightheadedness
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Unusual or persistent fatigue

Women are more likely to have stress cardiomyopathy, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It is a real and potentially deadly condition where extreme emotional or physical stress can lead to heart muscle failure. To properly diagnose stress cardiomyopathy, a coronary angiogram is usually required.

Coronary microvascular disease, or small vessel disease, is another disease that is more prevalent in women. This condition affects the heart’s tiny arteries and may be caused by low levels of oestrogen after menopause. Symptoms include chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, and other signs and symptoms of heart disease.

This page has been reviewed by our medical content reviewers.