Campus Life

The Medical Minute: Heart disease in women - what's the difference?

By Deborah L. Wolbrette

February was designated as Heart Month to increase awareness of heart disease. Recently, the American Heart Association's (AHA) Go Red campaign has focused on women and heart disease — and for good reason. More women die of heart disease than all other causes of death combined. More women than men die from cardiovascular disease which is why women need to be aware of their risk factors.

The important risk factors that can be controlled or treated include high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. To prevent cardiovascular disease or slow the progression of existing disease, each woman must assess her own risk. This should be done with the help of her physician to determine blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

Hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol or triglycerides need to be treated aggressively through diet, lifestyle changes and, sometimes, medication. Smokers have twice the risk of coronary heart disease compared to nonsmokers, making it very important for women to stop smoking. More women are overweight than ever before. We now know that abdominal obesity is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. Women should aim for a waistline of less than 35 inches. The safest and best way to achieve this goal is with a heart-healthy diet and exercise.

Heart problems may not appear in women the same as in men. Women who already have coronary heart disease may not experience the classic chest pain that men usually experience with a heart attack, but could experience a number of other symptoms that are unique to each individual. Additionally, exercise stress tests produce more false positive results in women than in men. However, when imaging of the heart is included, stress testing becomes a more reliable diagnostic tool. Despite these challenges in the diagnosis of coronary heart disease in women, once identified, treatment is just as effective as for men.

It is important for women and men not to ignore symptoms, but to report them immediately to their physician. The goal is to stabilize coronary artery disease and prevent a heart attack from happening.

Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute has a new Web site with a wealth of information on the signs, symptoms, diagnostics and treatment of the many conditions associated with coronary heart disease. To learn more, please visit

Deborah L. Wolbrette is associate professor of medicine, Penn State College of Medicine and an electrophysiologist in Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Last Updated July 22, 2015