We are unable to create an online viewer for this document. Please download the document instead.
Pennington Nutrition Series
Healthier lives through education in nutrition and preventive medicine
2005 No. 27
Women and Heart Disease
“Heart disease isn’t just a man’s disease.”
Heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases are devastating
to women. These are not just diseases affecting men. Coronary heart
disease, which causes heart attack, is actually the leading cause of death
for American women. This is surprising to most, since many women feel
that cancer is more of a threat to them, particularly breast cancer.
However, nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart
disease and stroke than from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
It is now known that heart attack symptoms in women can be different
than those experienced by men. Many women experiencing a heart attack
may not even be aware. Women tend to feel a burning sensation in their
upper abdomen and may experience lightheadedness, an upset stomach,
and sweating. Many women may ignore these symptoms that signify a
heart attack because the typical pain felt in the left half of the chest
during heart attack often does not occur in them.
Menopause: How it Relates?
Compared to men, many women before the age of menopause seem to be
partly protected from coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
Studies have indicated that after menopause, women experience an
increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Coronary heart disease rates
in these women are 2-3 times higher than in women of the same age before
menopause. This phenomenon has been linked to decreasing levels of the
female hormone estrogen during menopause. This process typically begins
around age 50 in women. Estrogen is associated with higher levels of high-
density lipoprotein (HDL or “good cholesterol”) and lower levels of low-
density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad cholesterol”).
In the Heart and Estrogen/Progestin Replacement Study (HERS),
researchers observed how hormone replacement therapy may affect women
who already have heart disease. What they found was that postmenopausal
women with heart disease who were given estrogen and progestin actually
had more heart attacks and heart disease deaths during the first year of
the study than women not on the hormone replacement therapy did.
In 2002, scientists at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
announced that they had stopped a large study of postmenopausal
hormone therapy (PHT) using a combination of estrogen plus progestin.
In this trial, referred to as the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), it
was shown that estrogen plus progestin significantly increased the risk
of invasive breast cancer and blood clots in the legs and lungs and did
not protect women from heart disease and stroke. In fact, it appeared
that women taking this drug had a higher risk of heart attack and
stroke. After these trials, along with others, the American Heart
Association (AHA) recommended against the use of combined
hormone replacement therapy for the prevention of heart disease
and stroke in postmenopausal women.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease and Stroke for Women
Non-modifiable Risk Factors
• Increasing age:
As women grow older, their risk of heart disease and stroke begins
to rise and continues rising with age.
• Sex (gender):
Men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and have
attacks earlier in life. However, each year about 40,000 more women
than men have strokes with more than 60% of total stroke deaths
occurring in women.
• Heredity (family history):
Both genders are more likely to develop heart disease or stroke if a
close blood relative has had them. Race is also a factor. Black women
have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke than white women.
Compared with whites, African-American men and women are more
likely to die of stroke.
• Previous heart attack or stroke or TIA
Women who have already had a heart attack are at a much higher
risk of having a heart attack when compared to women who have
never had one. 14 percent of individuals who survive a first stroke
or heart attack will have another within a year. A transient ischemic
attack (TIA or “mini-stroke”) is also a risk factor and predictor
Modifiable Risk Factors
• Tobacco smoke
Smoking is the single most preventable cause of
death in the United States and is a major cause of
cardiovascular disease in women. Constant exposure
to others’ cigarette smoke (second-hand smoke)
also increases your risk, even if you do not smoke.
In women, the combination of smoking and using
• Physical inactivity
birth control pills increases the risk for heart
Lack of physical activity is a risk factor for
attack and stroke.
heart disease and indirectly increases the
risk of stroke. It was found that heart
• High blood cholesterol
disease was almost 2x’s as likely to develop
High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for
in inactive people than in those who are
heart disease and increases the risk for stroke as
more active. The American Heart
well. High levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad”
Association recommends accumulating at
30 minutes of p
cholesterol) raise the risk of heart disease and
hysical activity on most
heart attack; whereas, high levels of HDL
or all days of the week.
cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) lower the
risk of heart disease.
Obesity and overweight
If an individual has too much fat, especially
• High blood pressure
if it is mostly located in the waist area,
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart
then he/she is at a higher risk for health
attack and the most important risk factor for
problems, including high blood pressure,
stroke. The following contribute to an increased
high blood cholesterol, high triglycerides,
risk of developing high blood pressure in women:
diabetes, heart disease & stroke.
• Diabetes mellitus
Compared to women without diabetes,
? Family history of high blood pressure
women with diabetes have a two to six
times higher risk of heart disease and
? Usage of certain types of birth control pills
Other Risk Factors for Women
• High triglyceride levels
A high triglyceride level often goes with higher levels of total
cholesterol and LDL, and lower levels of HDL with an increased risk of
diabetes. However, scientists don't agree that this is a risk factor for
heart disease by itself. It has been suggested that high triglycerides
may increase the risk for heart disease more so in women than in men.
• Excessive alcohol intake
Excessive drinking and binge drinking can contribute to obesity, high
triglycerides, cancer and other diseases, raise blood pressure, cause
heart failure and lead to stroke. Although moderate alcohol consumption
(1 drink/day for women) is shown to lower risks for heart disease, it is
not recommended that nondrinkers start using alcohol or increase the
amount they drink.
How do women know if they’re at risk of heart disease?
? High Risk
Heart disease or another serious, high-risk condition, such as kidney disease
or diabetes is already present.
? Intermediate Risk
You have metabolic syndrome, early signs of cardiovascular disease, multiple
risk factors— such as smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol—
or parents, siblings or children with early-onset heart disease.
? Lower Risk
You may have metabolic syndrome or one or more risk factors.
? Optimal Risk
You have the best possible risk profile and you live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is a world-renowned
nutrition research center.
Pennington Nutrition Series, Number 27, 2005
To promote healthier lives through research and education in nutrition
and preventative medicine.
Heli Roy PhD, RD
Shanna Lundy, BS
The Pennington Center has six priorities in research:
1. Clinical Obesity Research
Division of Education
Phillip Brantley PhD, Director
4. Health and Performance Enhancement
Pennington Biomedical Research Center
5. Nutrition and Chronic Diseases
Claude Bouchard PhD, Executive Director
6. Nutrition and the Brain
The research fostered by these divisions can have a profound impact
on healthy living and on the prevention of common chronic diseases,
such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and
The American Heart Association. 2005.
The Division of Education provides education and information to the
scientific community and the public about research findings, training
Accessed: August 19, 2005.
programs and research areas, and coordinates educational events
for the public on various health issues.
Texas Heart Institute. Available at:
We invite people of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the
Accessed: July 29, 2005.
exciting research studies being conducted at the Pennington Center
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. If you would like to take part, visit the
Mayo Clinic. Available at:
clinical trials web page at www.pbrc.edu or call (225) 763-2597.
Accessed: July 29, 2005.
Visit our Web Site: www.pbrc.edu