Special Considerations for Women

Heart disease progresses over time. You can't pop a few pills to cure it, and you don't suddenly wake up one day and have it. It may seem that way if you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, but both conditions result from a disease process that has gone on for some time. The good news is that you can reduce your odds of having a heart attack or stroke, suffering from angina, or developing blockages in the arteries that supply blood to your limbs (peripheral artery disease [PAD]) or kidneys (renal artery stenosis [RAS]) by knowing your individual risk factors and what to do about them.

The following categories of risk factors are the same for women* and men*, but many of them include special considerations that are very important for women to know.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors Controllable Risk Factors
Increasing age (including menopausal changes) Smoking and using other tobacco products
Biological sex High cholesterol levels
Family history of heart disease (which includes ethnicity) High blood pressure (hypertension)
  Physical inactivity
  Being overweight or obese
  Metabolic syndrome

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. Also, the greater the level of each risk factor, the greater the risk. By decreasing these risk factors, you may reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

Special risk considerations for women

Each of us has a unique combination of advantages and disadvantages when it comes to developing heart disease that makes up our personal profile of risk factors. According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, nonpreventable risk factors that might influence a woman's risk of heart disease include the following:

  • Having a family history of early heart disease
  • Being age 55 or older
  • Being of a certain race/ethnicity (Black, Latina, and Indigenous women are at greater risk)

The link between preeclampsia and heart disease

Preeclampsia is a medical condition marked by high blood pressure during pregnancy and postpartum. The condition is typically treated with medications; however, early delivery may be advised if blood pressure doesn’t respond to treatment. According to the Preeclampsia Foundation, 5%–8% of all pregnancies are affected, and preeclampsia is a leading cause of infant and mother illness and death worldwide.

Research has found that preeclampsia can be an early indicator of future cardiovascular problems:

  • A history of preeclampsia doubles the risk of heart attack, stroke, and blood clots within five to 15 years after pregnancy.
  • Individuals who have repeat or severe preeclampsia or preeclampsia accompanied by stillbirth are at greater risk of heart disease than those who have high blood pressure only or preeclampsia during a single pregnancy.
  • Many individuals may not be aware that preeclampsia and other pregnancy complications can signal heart disease risk.

Medical researchers don’t know exactly how and why preeclampsia and future heart disease are linked. One theory is that pregnancy's additional strain on the cardiovascular system unmasks early existing heart disease. However, more research is necessary to understand the connection. But as more doctors and patients become aware of the link between preeclampsia and future heart disease, individuals at risk can be identified earlier and treated sooner.

If you’ve had preeclampsia during pregnancy, make sure your doctor knows you have this heart disease risk factor. Your doctor can help you determine the next steps for your heart health if you’ve had preeclampsia or other pregnancy complications linked with future heart disease, such as gestational diabetes or preterm birth.

Continue to monitor your risk

Knowing and monitoring your risk is important now that you know the risks of heart disease. You can start reducing certain risk factors by eating a healthy diet, exercising, and managing stress. You should also see your doctor regularly for check-ups to track your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar measurements. Between doctors' visits, be sure to monitor your weight, diet, and activity level.

*The term “women” in the context of “women’s cardiovascular health” applies to individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) who have a female biological reproductive system, which includes a vagina, uterus, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, accessory glands, and external genital organs.

*The term “men” in the context of “cardiovascular health” applies to individuals assigned male at birth (AMAB) who have a male biological reproductive system, which includes a penis, scrotum, testes, epididymis, vas deferens, prostate, and seminal vesicles.