Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Despite that distinction, heart disease is still often regarded as more of a men’s health issue. Even now, heart disease in women remains largely misunderstood. Women need to be aware of the risks, especially as heart disease symptoms in women can be different from the classic signs among men.

The good news is that by eating a heart-healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and being more attuned to the symptoms and risks, women can do a great deal to protect themselves from the dangers of heart disease.

Heart Disease in Women: Know the Symptoms

While some women experience the dull, achy, or sharp chest pains associated with a heart attack, others have no overt symptoms at all. Heart disease can be “silent,” going undiagnosed until a woman experiences a full-blown heart attack, heart failure, or stroke. Symptoms to monitor include:

  • Unusual, extreme fatigue
  • Sweating or cold sweats
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Shoulder, jaw, neck, upper back, or abdominal pain or discomfort

Heart disease in women can be subtle. Symptoms may be most acute during rest or sleep. Chest pain can seem like tightness or pressure, rather than the intense pains classically linked to cardiac arrest. Meanwhile, panic and anxiety attacks can mimic the signs of cardiac arrest, creating additional confusion. But these signs should always be treated seriously, especially if you don’t have a history of such pain. If you think you may be experiencing a heart attack, seek medical attention right away.

Heart Disease in Women: Understand the Risk Factors

While the traditional risks for heart disease — such as hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, and obesity — should always be noted, the following factors are important risk considerations for heart disease in women:

  • Smoking. While smoking is a risk factor for both men and women, it’s an especially significant threat to women’s heart health.
  • Diabetes increases a woman’s chances of developing heart disease — even more so than it does for men.
  • Pregnancy complications including high blood pressure can increase a woman’s chances of developing heart disease.
  • Sedentary lifestyle and inactivity are major risk factors for heart disease.
  • Menopause causes a drop in estrogen levels, upping the risk for coronary microvascular disease, or cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels of the body.
  • Excessive alcohol use poses a significant risk to heart health, as does a poor diet high in artificial trans fats, and refined and highly processed foods.

Many women underestimate the potential risks of heart disease, and awareness is key — even for younger women. To reduce your chances of getting heart disease, make sure to:

  • Eat a healthy diet high in fiber, whole grains, natural foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid artificial trans and hydrogenated fats, added and refined sugars, and excess salt.
  • Exercise.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Lower stress wherever possible, and find healthy ways of coping — like meditation and deep breathing exercises.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.
  • Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar within a healthy range.

Remember that women don’t always present with the “classic” symptoms of heart disease. Protect yourself with a preventive approach to your health, and monitor any changes or symptoms you may be experiencing. If you notice any sudden shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting when you exert yourself, unusual body aches, or changes in your activity levels, check in with your doctor.