Coronary Artery Disease in Women: How to Recognize it and Take Control
Women are susceptible to this leading cause of heart disease. Learn what it is and how to prevent it.
Heart Disease is an umbrella term for a number of conditions that affect the heart. Coronary Artery Disease, or CAD, is the most common form of heart disease in the United States.
CAD is a condition in which the lining (endothelium) of the blood vessels to the heart become damaged. These blood vessels are called the coronary arteries and provide the heart muscle with oxygen and nutrient-rich blood.
Once damaged, the blood vessel walls can begin to form fatty plaques, or “blockages,” a process known as atherosclerosis. These plaques can partially or completely block the flow of blood through the blood vessel.
How Does Coronary Artery Disease Effect Women?
About 1 in 16 women over the age of 20 have coronary artery disease. This is true among black women, white women, and Hispanic women. In Asian women, about 1 in 30 have coronary artery disease.
CAD can often times be “silent,” with plaques gradually increasing in size without causing noticeable signs or symptoms. Symptoms sometimes do not occur until the plaques become large enough in size to cause a cardiac event, such as a heart attack or heart failure.
When women do have symptoms they often experience the common symptoms of CAD. However, women are slightly more likely to experience the less common symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, or neck and back discomfort.
Women possess great control over the health of their blood vessels, despite any existing genetic risk. One study found that women who engaged in healthy lifestyle behaviors decreased their chances of a heart attack by 92%.
Learn more about your risk for heart disease and some effective lifestyle behaviors you can adopt to lower your risk here.
What Causes Damage to the Coronary Arteries?
A number of lifestyle factors and conditions can cause damage to the walls of our blood vessels, such as:
Elevated blood sugars
High cholesterol and triglyceride levels
A diet rich in fat and processed foods
How Do These Plaques Affect Me?
If a plaque obstructs a blood vessel completely it will restrict the blood flow to the heart muscle downstream, depriving it of vital oxygen.
Blood flow can be restricted either partially or fully. Partial restriction can cause symptoms, which can be viewed as a warning sign of a heart attack down the road and a way for your heart to tell you that it is not receiving the oxygen it needs.
Symptoms may be relieved with rest or with certain medications. Talking to your doctor and making lifestyle changes is necessary to prevent the plaque from getting worse and leading to a heart attack.
How Does a Plaque Cause a Heart Attack?
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when the plaque completely blocks the blood vessel.
A heart attack can occur one of two ways:
A plaque can slowly increase in size until it completely cuts off blood flow.
A plaque can rupture from the wall of the artery, triggering a blood clot, which can completely block off the flow of blood.
In both cases, the heart muscle downstream becomes ischemic, or deprived of oxygen. Prolonged ischemia (lack of oxygen) leads to a heart attack.
Coronary artery disease is a condition in which blockages form on the heart’s blood vessel walls and restrict blood flow to the heart muscle.
The section of the heart muscle that is starved of blood and oxygen will die unless blood flow is soon restored.
This is why it is vital to call 911 immediately if you experience symptoms so that you can recieve timely treatment to potentially limit damage to the heart muscle.
How Can I Avoid a Heart Attack (or a Second Heart Attack)?
It is never too late to take steps to prevent the onset or progression of CAD. With your doctor’s consent, you can consider addressing your heart health concerns with an online program or group heart health coaching aimed at adopting lifestyle habits that can greatly improve your heart and blood vessel health.
After a heart attack, your doctor will determine the best course of action to return to your normal activities.
Remember, the heart is a resilient organ. When part of the heart is damaged, it is possible to strengthen the rest of the heart muscle, which in turn can compensate for the section of the heart that is no longer able to do its job.
This can be achieved with supervised exercise such as a Cardiac Rehabilitation program, along with other recommendations that may be made by your doctor.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is a condition in which the lining of the coronary arteries to the heart become damaged, beginning the cascade of plaque formation and blocked arteries.
Lifestyle factors and conditions can initiate or worsen this damage.
Plaques can partially block arteries, sometimes causing symptoms, or completely block arteries, leading to a heart attack.
“Time is muscle,” so calling 911 as soon as symptoms occur can be lifesaving.
Even after a heart attack, lifestyle changes can improve your heart health so that you can go on to live a healthy, active life.