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An Underestimated Threat: Understanding Women’s Heart Disease Risk

Last updated: February 1, 2024

It’s critical for women to stay on top of routine care to help them assess and manage their risk.

Dr. Ameer Kabour, Cardiologist and Senior Medical Director of Cardiovascular Services, ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care

Who comes to mind when you picture a typical heart attack sufferer? Many of us conjure an image of an older male.

The common misconception that heart disease is more of a problem for men than women persists. That’s in spite of the fact that the condition is the leading cause of death for men and women alike.

Stereotypes are just one part of the problem. For a variety of reasons, women often dismiss their heart attack symptoms. That’s a dangerous situation, given that nearly 45% of women 20 and older are living with some form of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

“Women spend so much of their time and energy caring for others,” says Dr. Ameer Kabour, a Cardiologist and Senior Medical Director of Cardiovascular Services for ThedaCare Cardiovascular Care. “It’s vital for them to also prioritize their own well-being and care, including tracking and managing their heart health.”

Different Risk Factors

Several heart disease risk factors are common among both women and men. These include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history
  • Metabolic syndrome — the co-existence of high blood pressure, obesity, and high glucose and triglyceride levels
  • Inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus

“At the same time, women experience unique life stages, including pregnancy and menopause, that can put them at an increased risk for heart disease,” Dr. Kabour says.

According to Mayo Clinic, some heart disease risk factors specific to women include:

  • Diabetes. Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than are men with diabetes. Also, because diabetes can change the way women feel pain, there’s an increased risk of having a silent heart attack — without symptoms.
  • Emotional stress and depression. Stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s. In addition, depression may make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment for other health conditions.
  • Smoking. Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than it is in men.
  • Menopause. Low levels of estrogen after menopause increase the risk of developing disease in smaller blood vessels.
  • Pregnancy complications. High blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase the mother’s long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. These conditions also make women more likely to get heart disease.
  • Family history of early heart disease. This appears to be a greater risk factor in women than in men.

“It’s critical for women to stay on top of routine care to help them assess and manage their risk,” Dr. Kabour says. “Your primary care provider can recommend lifestyle modifications and tests you might need.”

More Heart Attack Symptoms

“When it comes to heart attack symptoms, it’s important to understand that chest pain is the most common symptom for men and women alike,” Dr. Kabour says. “Beyond that, though, women have a longer list of heart attack symptoms than men.”

According to the AHA, common heart attack symptoms by gender are:


  • Chest pain, but not always
  • Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Jaw, neck, or back pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Indigestion
  • Extreme fatigue


  • Squeezing chest pressure or pain
  • Jaw, neck, or back pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath

Don’t Delay Care

“The symptoms women experience may appear subtler or more ambiguous than the commonly thought of heart attack signs,” Dr. Kabour says. “For that reason, women often chalk up their symptoms to stress or other factors. That’s a mistake.”

If you’re experiencing heart attack symptoms, it’s crucial to act quickly. Call 911. Don’t attempt to drive yourself to the hospital.

“Through education and awareness, we can achieve better outcomes,” Dr. Kabour says. “That starts with women understanding their personal risk factors and working to address them where possible.”

You can become an advocate and learn more about women’s heart health at the annual Northeast Wisconsin Go Red for Women luncheon, taking place at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15 at Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton. ThedaCare is a proud sponsor of the 2024 event. Register or donate today.

Tags: Go Red for Women heart attack symptoms Menopause pregnancy Women’s heart health

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