Women’s Health: Understanding and Preventing Heart Disease

Article written by Roxanne Hicks, MD, Internal Medicine provider at Snoqualmie Valley Health.

May is Women’s Health Month; a great opportunity to learn about the unique health risks women face and how to address them so that all people can live long and healthy lives. Many people are shocked to learn that heart disease is the leading cause of death of women in the United States. So, what can we do about it?

First, it’s important to understand the signs of heart disease unique to women so that you can advocate for yourself and loved ones. Heart disease can lead to emergencies such as a heart attack, which is a life-threatening event. Because symptoms of heart disease in women can be different than in men, it often goes undiagnosed. If you or a loved one ever experience these symptoms, call 911 immediately.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

  • Chest pain with physical activity is a common sign of heart disease in both women and men.
  • Women are more likely to have chest pain with mental stress or sometimes no chest pain at all.
  • Women are more likely to experience nausea, vomiting, fatigue, abdominal pain, or shortness of breath as symptoms of heart disease.

Second, it’s critical to be aware of risk factors for heart disease, and the unique risks to women. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors, as it could someday save your life!

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

  • Risk factors that affect women and men include smoking tobacco, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
  • Risk factors unique to women include early menopause (before age 45), polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), history of diabetes while pregnant (gestational diabetes), history of high blood pressure while pregnant and pre-eclampsia, and history of giving birth preterm.

Third, and most importantly, is taking steps to prevent heart disease. This is hands down the best thing you can do to lower your risk and ensure a thriving future.

Preventing Heart Disease

  • Engaging in regular physical activity, ideally 150 minutes a week, is recommended. This doesn’t mean you have to go to a gym and run on a treadmill! Walking your dog, jogging with friends, and playing pickle ball all count towards this goal. If you enjoy treadmill running, that counts too.
  • Restrictive diets are not healthy or recommended, and often result in weight gain when they are inevitably stopped because of unsustainable restrictions. Instead, it’s recommended to eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, lentils and beans, nuts, whole grains, and unsaturated fats (found in avocados, nuts, fish, canola and olive oil) while limiting sugar, added salt, processed foods, red meats, saturated and trans fats (found in fatty meat, pre-packaged foods, butter).
  • Make sure to see your doctor regularly so you can be screened for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. People will often not have symptoms from these diseases until permanent damage is done and they’ve developed heart disease, so it’s important to be screened regularly.
  • If you are pregnant, go to all recommended prenatal appointments to ensure the best possible health outcomes for you and your baby.
  • Women who breastfeed in their lifetime are less likely to develop and to die from heart disease, so talk with your doctor if breastfeeding after you give birth is right for you and your baby.
  • If you have irregular periods, excess body hair, or have been told you have multiple cysts on your ovaries, talk with your doctor about the possibility of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and treatments.
  • If you smoke tobacco, talk with your doctor about how to quit. There are many effective treatments proven to help people quit tobacco that your doctor can share with you.

Most importantly, focus on a few small, incremental changes over time, as these are much more likely to become permanent healthy habits. The above lifestyle habits are recommended throughout the lifecycle, including during pregnancy and menopause. They are the best medicine to prevent and treat conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes which in turn lowers risk of heart disease.

Dr. Hicks is a primary care internal medicine physician with special interests in women’s health, preventative care, and health systems. She is accepting new patients aged 18 and older. Book an appointment with Dr. Hicks.


  1. CDC. Leading Causes of Death in Females, United States. Accessed May 26, 2024. https://www.cdc.gov/women/lcod/index.htm
  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed May 26, 2024. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/coronary-heart-disease/women
  3. World Health Organization. Healthy Diet. Accessed May 26, 2024. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet
  4. American Heart Association. Breastfeeding reduces mothers’ cardiovascular disease risk, Journal of the American Heart Association Report. Accessed May 26, 2024. https://newsroom.heart.org/news/breastfeeding-reduces-mothers-cardiovascular-disease-risk-review-found