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Women and CVD - Facts and tips


Cardiovascular disease: not just a man’s disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) does not just affect men, and in some instances its effects can be worse in women. It is the number one killer of women, with over two million premature deaths each year.  The good news is that most cardiovascular diseases are preventable.

Key facts

  • CVD represents one-third of all deaths among women
  • Heart attacks claim the lives of 3.3 million women every year, with another 3.2 million women dying from stroke and the remaining 2.1 million women succumbing to other CVD
  • In low- and middle-income countries, women who develop CVD are more likely to die from it than women in industrialized nations
  • Some of the symptoms in women can be different to that in men and as a result they are often under-diagnosed and under-treated when compared to men
  • The risk of dying or becoming seriously unwell due to heart disease and stroke is largely underestimated in women

How to protect your heart

Protect your heart

Most of the major cardiovascular disease risks factors can be controlled. Here are a few tips on how to control those risks and protect your heart:


Get active

30 minutes of activity a day can help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Try to make exercise a regular part of your life: use the stairs instead of the lift, get off the bus a few stops earlier and walk the rest of the way.

Stop smoking and protect yourself from tobacco

Your risk of coronary heart disease will be halved within a year and will return to a normal level over time. Avoid smoke-filled environments: exposure to second-hand smoke significantly increases risk of heart attack.

Maintain a healthy weight

Keeping a healthy weight and limiting your salt intake will help to control your blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Know your numbers

Have your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels checked regularly. High blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major factor for approximately half of all heart disease and stroke. High blood cholesterol and glucose levels can also place you at greater risk.

Eat healthily

Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, a variety of whole grain products, lean meat, fish, peas, beans, lentils, and foods low in saturated fats. Be wary of processed foods, which often contain high levels of salt. Drink lots of water!

Know the warning signs

Heart attacks often manifest themselves differently in women than in men. Learn the warning signs: the sooner assistance is sought, the greater the chances of a full recovery.

Carefully take your medication

Take the medication that your doctor has prescribed.

Keep track

Keep track of your achievements and progress: feel proud about what you do for your own, and your family’s health.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for CVD are largely the same for men and women, although certain women expose themselves to more risk factors than their male counterparts. While age and family history play a role, the majority of CVD deaths depends on modifiable risk factors. The good news is that you can easily modify some major risk factors to lower your risk of heart disease or stroke.


Women smokers have a higher risk of heart attack than male smokers. Women who smoke only 2-5 cigarettes a day double their risk of heart attack (while men who smoke 6-9 cigarettes a day double their risk). Constant exposure to secondhand smoke also increases your risk of dying from heart disease by 15% in women. Women smokers who use birth control pills have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke than non-smoking women who use them.

Obesity and overweight

If you have too much fat, especially around your waist, you are at higher risk of heart disease and stroke. A women who is obese, even if physically active, increases her risk of coronary disease by 2.48 times compared to a women with normal weight. If you are an obese smoker you can expect to live 14 fewer years than non smokers of normal weight. The Body Mass Index and the circumference of the waist is a good way to determine if you are overweight.

Physical inactivity

Women who engage in physical activity for less than an hour per week have nearly 50% more risk of developing coronary heart disease compared to women who do more than three hours of physical activity per week.


Hypertension is largely preventable. Blood pressure increases with age, affecting two-thirds of women over 75. Women have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure if they are obese, pregnant, have a family history of high blood pressure, use birth control pills or have reached menopause.

Unhealthy eating

What you eat affects your heart health. Not enough fresh fruit and vegetables and too much sugar, salt and bad fat in your diet all increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

High Blood Cholesterol

High Blood Cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and also increases the risk of stroke. Women’s cholesterol is generally higher than men’s from age 45 on. High level of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) raise the risk of heart disease and heart attack, while high level of HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) lower the risk of heart disease.


Diabetes affects more than 70 million women in the world. Women with diabetes are at much greater risk of heart disease, including heart attack and stroke.

Know your warning signs

These signs could come and go.

If experiencing any of these signs, call an ambulance or a health professional immediately: Minutes matter, and fast action can save lives. 

Warning signs of heart attack in women can include

  • Chest discomfort, including squeezing, discomfort or pain in the center of the chest, between the breasts or behind the breastbone.
  • Discomfort and/or pain spreading to other areas of the upper body such as one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, unexplained weakness or fatigue, anxiety or unusual nervousness, indigestion or gas-like pain, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, lightheadedness and collapse are signs which one out of four women having a heart attack experience, but do not recognize. These symptoms may occur with or without chest discomfort

Warning signs of stroke in women include

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding speech.
  • Sudden trouble seeing with one or both eyes.
  • Sudden difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause
  • Sudden fainting or unconsciousness

CVD, a gender issue

Under-recognition and under-treatment

Cardiovascular disease, contrary to common belief, is not just a man’s disease as it affects women and men equally. However, the symptoms, progress and outcome of heart disease can be different in women and this leads to women being often under-diagnosed and under-treated.

In some instances, effects of CVD can be worse in women than in men:

  • Younger women who have a heart attack have higher mortality than men of the same age.
  • Women are more likely than men to become disabled after a stroke.
  • Women with diabetes have higher CVD mortality than men with diabetes.
  • Immediately following stroke, women are more likely to experience serious problems compared to men.

Women themselves tend to under-estimate the risk of dying or becoming seriously unwell due to heart disease. Young women still feel more threatened by cancer than they do by CVD, despite being statistically more likely to die of heart disease.

Educating women greatly increases their willingness and ability to take heart-protective action, which is why the World Heart Federation, together with its members, runs campaigns and activities to inform women worldwide that heart disease and stroke is their number one killer and that they can take appropriate action to prevent them.

Learn more about CVD in women

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