Heart Disease Risks in Women

» Request a referral to a John C. Lincoln cardiac specialist.

Heart disease is an equal-opportunity disease. It can affect men and women alike. In 2007, heart disease — the leading cause of death in the U.S — killed more than 800,000 persons in the U.S. More than half were female.

Women face a unique set of gender-specific factors that elevate their risk for heart disease. The leading heart disease risks in women include menopause, weight gain and smoking. Fortunately, women can control many of the heart disease risks.

Heart Disease Risks Shared by Women and Men

Women and men share a set of common risk factors for heart disease. These "traditional" risk factors include:

  • Health conditions (high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes).
  • Lifestyle choices (tobacco use, poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol use).
  • Family history.
  • Age.

Read an in-depth discussion of these factors in the Your Heart Health section of

Heart Disease Risks Unique to Women

The leading heart disease risks in women include metabolic syndrome, stress and depression, menopause, weight gain, smoking and age.

Metabolic syndrome: This syndrome is a collection of factors that contribute to the chances of developing heart disease. For everyone, our risk of heart disease increases by having just three of the following five characteristics:

  • An enlarged waist (fat around the abdomen) of at least 35.2 inches for women and 40 inches for men.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Low levels of HDL cholesterol.
  • High blood sugar (insulin resistance).
  • Elevated triglycerides (fats in the blood).

However, for women, metabolic syndrome can be more dangerous. Compared with men, women who exhibit metabolic syndrome are at three times the risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke, as well as nine to 30 times greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. According to one study, enlarged waist and high triglyceride levels are the worst combination of characteristics for women, boosting the chances of dying from heart attack by five times, compared to normal women.

Mental stress and depression: Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression, which increases the risk of heart disease by two to three times, compared with persons who are not depressed. Depression can interfere with a healthy lifestyle by leading to a loss of interest in daily activities, feelings of hopelessness and unusual swings in weight.

Smoking: Not only are women who smoke are at greater risk of premature death, they are also more likely to experience gender-specific health consequences, including increased risk of contraception delay and infertility. Further, women who smoke are more likely to begin menopause before the age of 45. Menopause, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease.

Menopause: Heart disease risk increases significantly when a women goes through menopause, when levels of the hormone estrogen — which is thought to play a role in protecting the heart — decrease.

Age: As we age, we're more prone to a lack of physical activity and weight gain — two factors that lead to higher blood pressure. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women 65 and older. It's the third-leading cause of death for women 25 to 44 and the second-leading cause of death for women 45 to 64. For this reason, women under the age of 65 who have a family history of heart disease should pay particularly close attention to heart disease risk factors.

» Request a referral to a John C. Lincoln cardiac specialist.