9 Heart Disease Risk Factors for Women

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Elizabeth Beasley on December 27, 2020
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    Know Your Risk for Women’s Number One Health Threat
    Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States and is responsible for roughly 1 in every 4 female deaths. Though awareness about the dangers of heart disease is rising, only 54% of women recognize it as their number one killer, and 64% of women who die of heart disease had no previous symptoms. That’s why it’s important to keep these heart disease risk factors top of mind and take steps to reduce them in your daily lifestyle.
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    1. Stress
    If you’re experiencing chronic stress or have been through a stressful event like abuse or the death of a loved one, you are at a greater risk for heart disease. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women who experienced high levels of stress were 12 times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. Stress can trigger issues like high blood pressure, poor diet, reduced exercise, and increased drinking or smoking—all of which increase your heart disease risk. If you’re under stress, keep your heart healthy by seeking help for coping with stress and improving negative situations and environments. 
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    2. Smoking
    Cigarette smoking narrows arteries, restricts circulation, and greatly increases your risk of heart disease. Women who smoke are twice as likely as male smokers to have a heart attack. The good news is quitting smoking can quickly reduce your risk. After just one year of not smoking, your heart disease risk drops by 80%, and in seven years your risk from smoking is completely gone. Secondhand smoke is just as harmful, so limiting your exposure will also decrease the dangers of heart disease. Finally, smoking while taking birth control increases your chance of heart attack or stroke, so quitting tobacco is a win-win on many fronts.  
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    3. Excessive Alcohol Consumption
    Drinking alcohol in excess can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and increased cholesterol levels, which ultimately can cause heart disease. The key here is moderation; the recommended maximum amount of alcohol a woman should consume per day is one drink. What does one drink really mean? It’s one 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor. Keep in mind this recommendation refers to the amount consumed on any single day and isn’t intended as an average over several days.
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    4. Limited Physical Activity
    Exercise is a lifesaver for your heart because it boosts blood circulation, improves blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and helps with weight management. However, 70% of women in the United States don’t exercise regularly. How much physical activity does the average woman really need? At a minimum, you should get 2.5 hours of moderate exercises a week. Taking a brisk 30-minute walk five times a week will keep your heart healthy and reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. If weight control is your goal, up your exercise to 60 to 90 minutes per session.
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    5. Poor Diet
    A healthy diet can have a big impact on heart disease risk by reducing your weight as well as lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Guidelines for a heart-healthy diet include: eating five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit each day, eating fatty fish like wild salmon at least twice a week, reducing sodium intake, limiting saturated fat, and avoiding hydrogenated oils. If changing your diet seems daunting, ask your doctor to recommend a registered dietician who can work with you to create a plan that fits your lifestyle and personal goals. 
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    6. Abdominal Obesity
    Being 20 pounds overweight or more already increases your risk of heart disease, but where your fat settles on your body is an even more important factor. Women who carry their weight around their waist are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease than women who carry fat in their hips. To reduce your heart disease risk, your abdominal circumference should be less than 35 inches. To measure your waist accurately, hold a tape measure at your navel and circle it around your abdomen, measuring just below the narrowest part of your torso. If your measurement is high, improving your diet and exercise can help trim your middle.
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    7. High Blood Pressure, Cholesterol and Blood Sugar
    Increased levels for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose can all pose a threat to your health and increase your risk of heart disease. Starting around age 20, get your numbers checked during your annual physical and check them even more regularly if you are age 40 or older. Optimal blood pressure is 120/80 mm Hg, total cholesterol level should be less than 200 mg/dL, and blood sugar levels should be less than 100 mg/dL after fasting. Again, a healthy diet and regular exercise are essential to keeping your numbers in check. 
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    8. Past Pregnancy Complications
    If you had a difficult pregnancy in the past, those symptoms can continue to affect your heart disease risk. Experiencing diabetes or high blood pressure while pregnant can increase your long-term risk of these health issues and raise your risk of cardiovascular disease. Some studies have even shown that the children of women with these complications may have an increased risk of heart disease. While you can’t change risk factors like these, being aware of your history gives you the opportunity to adopt heart healthy habits and reduce the factors you can control.  
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    9. Menopause
    After menopause, lower estrogen levels can become a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in your smaller blood vessels. This is also true for women who have experienced early menopause or surgical menopause. There’s been much research around whether or not hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could reduce the risk of heart disease in women. The American Heart Association recommends HRT only be used as a short-term treatment for menopausal symptoms and not for prevention of heart attack or stroke. Long-term HRT may increase the risk of heart disease and should be avoided if possible. 
9 Heart Disease Risk Factors for Women

About The Author

Elizabeth has been writing for Healthgrades since 2014 and specializes in articles about alternative and complementary therapies like meditation, yoga, energy work and aromatherapy. She also performs improv comedy and is a firm believer that laughter really is the best medicine.
  1. Women and Heart Disease Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm
  2. Women’s Heart Disease Risk Quiz. Women’s Heart Foundation. http://www.womensheart.org/content/heartdisease/heart_disease_risk_quiz.asp
  3. What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/hearttruth/lower-risk/risk-factors.htm
  4. How Do I Find Out if I Am at Risk for Heart Disease? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/hearttruth/lower-risk/find-out.htm
  5. Women and Heart Disease. Texas Heart Institute. http://www.texasheart.org/HIC/Topics/HSmart/women.cfm
    Gender matters: Heart disease risk in women. Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/gender-matters-heart-disease-risk-in-women
  6. Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167
  7. Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. American Heart Association. https://www.goredforwomen.org/know-your-risk/find-out-your-risk/know-your-risk-for-cardiovascular-di...
  8. Women and Cardiovascular Disease. Cleveland Clinic. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/disorders/coronary-artery-disease/women-cardiovascular-...
  9. Associations of Stressful Life Events and Social Strain With Incident Cardiovascular Disease in the Women's Health Initiative. Journal of the American Heart Association. http://jaha.ahajournals.org/content/3/3/e000687.abstract
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Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 27
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