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The differences between a man's and a woman's heart

Lankenau Medical Center April 2, 2014 Wellness

red heart on white background and white heart on red backgroundNot all hearts are created equal. In fact, men and women’s hearts, though they perform the same function, have some key differences that are important to understand, especially when it comes to preventing heart disease.

Risk factors

Although there are many factors that you can control, unfortunately, there are some you can’t. Simply being male increases your risk for heart disease, and most men suffer from heart problems earlier in life than their female counterparts. Higher blood pressure is common in younger men, and they often suffer cardiac events eight to ten years younger than women do. Because of this, it’s important for men to make sure they’re getting regular blood pressure and cholesterol screenings.

Some of the biggest risk factors for women are obesity and inactivity. Over 35 percent of women in the United States are obese, and over 25 percent of women do not exercise. A healthy diet and regular exercise are both keys to a healthy heart and while they also affect men, women are affected more often. Cholesterol is also a key player in determining heart disease. After menopause, it is especially important to make sure you’re getting ‘good’ cholesterol from foods like almonds and fish.

While men tend to present heart problems earlier in life, women are more prone to presenting later in life. In fact, women have a 90 percent risk of developing high blood pressure after age 55. Diabetes, which can increase your risk for heart problems, is also more common in adult women.

For both men and women, it’s important to understand your family history of heart disease.

“Know your family history. You can’t change the genes you’re given, but you can change how you’re taking care of yourself,” says Jeanine Romanelli, MD at Lankenau Medical Center.

Heart attack symptoms

When it comes to heart attacks, men and women also present different symptoms. Men usually present the ‘classic’ symptoms, or ones that are most commonly associated with a heart attack, such as:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Sweating

Women, however, often present symptoms that are completely different from a man’s, which may lead them to believe they aren’t suffering from a heart attack. These symptoms include:

  • Nausea and extreme fatigue
  • Arm and neck pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of anxiety, loss of appetite

“For women, doctors should be more suspicious that a complaint that doesn’t fit the classic pattern for a heart attack symptom can still signify a problem,” explains Lankenau cardiologist Dr. Paul Coady.

Know your numbers

One of the most important steps in preventing heart disease in men and women is knowing your numbers. These ‘numbers’—cholesterol, blood pressure, weight and blood sugar—can provide an indication of your heart health. Schedule regular screenings with your doctor to make sure your numbers are where they should be.