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Subtle signs of women's heart disease

Siski Green / 14 July 2016

Women are more likely than men to die of heart disease so find out what signs to look out for before it’s too late.

Woman with headache or migraine
Around 40% of patients with heart disease get migraines, compared to only 12% of people who don’t have heart disease. Photo posed by model.

It might shock you to discover that women are more likely than men to die of heart disease – around 79,000 men die each year in the UK as a result of heart-disease related problems, compared to 82,000 women. 

Learn more about cardiovascular disease

You may also be surprised to learn that heart disease kills more women each year than breast cancer. Yet while you’re probably aware of how to check your breasts for signs of possible cancer, you may not have any idea of what kind of symptoms to look for to check for heart disease.

It’s not surprising that many women don’t know what symptoms to look for – many people consider heart disease to be a ‘man’s problem.’ And that’s partly because women tend to have it later in life than men.

Women’s heart attacks and misdiagnosis

It’s thought that oestrogen provides some kind of protection against heart disease as high levels of the hormone are associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and lower levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL). This means that once women go through menopause their risk of heart disease gradually grows.

Stay healthy after the menopause

Worryingly, however, the number of women with heart disease at a younger age is also increasing. This is thought to be the result of unhealthy lifestyles – more stress, more smoking, eating unhealthily and being overweight.

However, as women are usually older when they are diagnosed, it means they are more likely to die as a result of the disease.

Women also respond to heart disease differently, displaying somewhat different symptoms to men.

Why are women’s heart disease symptoms different?

Because of the way heart disease tends to develop in women. Rather than experiencing a sudden rupture in an artery, there may be a slow erosion instead, which can make symptoms of heart disease, and even of a heart attack very different.

Another possible factor in raising a woman’s risk of dying of heart disease is that the signs of heart disease can be very similar to signs of other illnesses, so can easily be passed off as something not to worry about.

Here are some of the common subtle signs that indicate you may have a problem, although you must bear in mind that having any one or even several of these symptoms does not mean you necessarily have heart disease, just that it is a possibility. If you are in doubt, see your GP for a check-up.

You’re really tired

This is fatigue, not just simply a need to go to bed a little early. Even when you sleep ‘well’, you’re still tired, exhausted even.

This fatigue can’t be explained away as being because you’ve been under a lot of pressure lately or been working harder or haven’t been sleeping well. This type of fatigue is unusual for you. If your fatigue is a result of heart disease it’s caused by less oxygen getting pumped around your body.

Are you tired all the time?

You feel dizzy

There are so many reasons why you could be feeling dizzy or lightheaded – you haven’t eaten recently, you’re dehydrated, you’re coming down with a cold and so on – but heart disease is also a possible cause.

Again, if you can’t think of any other reason why you might be feeling dizzy or lightheaded quite often, it’s worth seeing your GP to rule out other possibilities such as anaemia, for example.

10 ways to deal with dizziness

Your extremities swell up or you get cramp often

Swollen fingers and feet, as well as cramp in your legs, can be an indicator of heart disease because your body is no longer able to circulate blood as efficiently.

Again, though, this can also be a symptom of something else, not heart disease. For example, a medication you’re taking could be the cause – meds for blood pressure and diabetes, for example, sometimes list swelling as a possible side effect.

Swollen fingers? Find out why

You get short of breath easily

If you’re unfit, then being short of breath may be no surprise but if you exercise regularly and still get short of breath, heart disease could be at fault. Wheezing can be caused by a build up of fluid on one side of the heart.

Cardiovascular disease glossary: heart jargon explained

You get migraines

Around 40% of patients with heart disease get migraines, compared to only 12% of people who don’t have heart disease, so having heart problems seems to increase your risk of the disorder. Medical professionals aren’t sure what aspect of heart disease might cause the migraines but it’s clear that they are linked somehow.

What you need to know about migraine

If you’re concerned about heart disease

Thankfully, while the symptoms of heart disease may be different between men and women, the key to preventing it in the first place is similar between the genders:

  • give up smoking
  • eat healthily keeping an eye on your blood sugar levels
  • try to maintain normal blood pressure levels
  • lower your cholesterol 
  • stay fit 
  • lose weight
  • and check your family history, too – if there is a history of heart disease, you may be at higher risk too

Risk factors for heart disease in women

  • being overweight or obese,
  • high cholesterol,
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure

If you have one or more of the symptoms above you might want to see your GP for further tests.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.