His & Hers: How Our Hearts Differ
“His and hers.” It’s a quaint phrase that evokes images of a prim pair of hand towels, which are alike except for the monogrammed initial. Or a pair of gold watches, one chunky and the other slender.
Outdated as it may be, the phrase has relevance when it comes to caring for something that men and women both have and depend on—their hearts. Men’s and women’s hearts are essentially the same (like those towels), but there are ways in which they are strikingly different (like the watches). Here are five ways men and women are similar and different when it comes to heart disease as well as tips for what women can do to protect themselves from it.
1. Anatomically Alike
When it comes to the basics of hearts and heart health, men and women are much the same: The heart pumps blood through the body to supply nutrients and oxygen to cells. And, according to cardiologist Jennifer Mieres, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, both genders share the same potential risk factors for heart disease, including a sedentary lifestyle, a high-fat diet, diabetes and high blood pressure. “This is an equal-opportunity killer,” Mieres says.
What women need to do: Don’t make the mistake of thinking heart disease only affects men. Educate yourself about risk factors and live a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes a healthy diet and regular exercise.
2. Symptom Similarities
Pain, chest discomfort and shortness of breath are among what Mieres calls the “classic” symptoms of a heart attack, and it’s important to remember that men and women can both experience these symptoms.
But there is another set of less-classic, sometimes milder, symptoms—including fatigue, jaw pain and heartburn—that often accompany traditional symptoms in women. “This isn’t to say that women can’t have a heart attack with classic symptoms,” Mieres says. So it’s important that the whole family be aware of all the possible symptoms and be prepared to call 911.
What women need to do: Be on the lookout for all symptoms of heart attack, whether mild or severe, and go to the hospital right away if there is any doubt. Be clear with medical personnel that you think you may be having a heart attack; don’t downplay any symptoms.
3. Increased Vulnerability
Men and women both struggle with heart-threatening risk factors like obesity, poor nutritional choices and inadequate exercise. That said, Mieres points out that “some risk factors are more potent in women than in men. Women who lead a sedentary lifestyle are more likely than men to have high blood pressure or diabetes.” Furthermore, type 2 diabetes is a stronger contributing factor for heart disease in women than in men, according to the American Heart Association.
What women need to do: Ask your doctor to test you for diabetes. And be vigilant about having your blood pressure screened regularly. Whether it’s high or not, it’s always a good idea to follow a low-fat, low-sodium diet and exercise at least 30 minutes a day five days a week or more.
4. Age Matters
“Generally speaking,” Mieres says, “men will show up with their first heart attack in their 40s, whereas for women it’s after menopause.” That is because women generally have less trouble with weight before menopause, Mieres says. Also, it’s believed that the estrogen that women’s bodies produce before menopause has a protective effect on the heart.
What women need to do: The American Heart Association does not advise women take postmenopausal hormone therapy (what used to be known as hormone replacement therapy) to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease or stroke. Aspirin therapy may be used in some circumstances, so talk to your doctor to find out if this preventive measure is right for you.
5. Life After a Heart Attack
The differences don’t stop when a man or woman shows up at the ER with symptoms of a heart attack. “When you look at the statistics,” Mieres says, “women are two to three times less likely to survive a heart attack.” This difference may be attributable to a delay in diagnosis and a failure to recognize the symptoms and go to the ER in time for lifesaving treatment.
Even weeks after a heart attack, there are differences between men and women. Mieres notes that “men are by far more often referred by their healthcare professionals to cardiac rehabilitation,” that crucial recovery and learning period designed to help people back into their lives after a cardiac event and reduce the likelihood of another.
What women need to do: Don’t wait for your doctor to prescribe cardiac rehabilitation; tell him or her you want to participate and ask for a referral.
Transforming Cardiovascular Care
Gwinnett Medical Center has been providing excellent heart and vascular care for more than 20 years. Below is a list of our comprehensive cardiac services. For more information, visit gmcheart.com or for a referral to one of our board-certified cardiologist, call
- Cardiac Catheterization for minimally invasive procedures related to heart attacks and other heart problems
- Cardiac Wellness Center with national accreditation for rehabilitation after a heart attack
- Cardiology department with national accreditation for the diagnosis of heart and vascular conditions
- Chest Pain Center with national accreditation for chest pain evaluation in an emergency situation
- Open Heart Surgery at the Strickland Heart Center with state-of-the-art equipment and two of the regions most accomplished surgeons