The Unique Stages of a Woman's Heart
Heart disease is gender-blind, affecting women and men at equal rates. Yet while it is the leading cause of death for both sexes in the U.S., the reasons why women get it – and what they experience – may be very different from men. Understanding those differences is essential to the prevention of cardiac-related illness. From societal and lifestyle stressors to hormones, Virtua cardiologist, Robert Singer, MD, shares some of the factors that can affect a woman’s heart throughout her life – and what can be done to manage them.
Young adult and childbearing years
- When a woman reaches childbearing age, pregnancy and delivery pose cardiac risks to both mother and baby. Pregnancy is a stressful time on a woman’s heart, with blood volume increasing by up to 40% to nourish a growing baby. With the heart pumping so much more blood, heart rate increases and blood vessels dilate to get blood to the uterus. And with breathing rate increasing as well, the heart is working harder than ever. These heart changes are a normal part of pregnancy but need to be carefully managed. Pregnancy-related high blood pressure – or other pre-existing heart conditions – can be intensely stressful on the heart when expecting and may require the services of a cardiologist and a maternal- fetal medicine physician.
- Throughout motherhood, women often put themselves at the end of the line, after children, husband and parents are taken care of. Juggling the demands of motherhood, career and caring for others can create overwhelming stress. Stress raises the heart rate and blood pressure, the heart muscle pumps harder and needs more oxygen to pump the same amount of blood, and, in turn, weakens the heart in the long term.
- Stress cannot be managed unless a woman makes herself a priority, at least some of the time.
- Women can blast stress by spending time with friends who make them laugh and improve their perspective on life’s challenges. Happiness contributes to a healthy heart.
- Exercise reduces stress and stress hormones like cortisol, which contributes to belly fat and conditions like metabolic syndrome, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Nutritious meals of whole foods extend the benefits of exercise.
Perimenopause, menopause and beyond
- On the other side of the childbearing years as estrogen production slows down, cholesterol rates begin to increase. Menopause or perimenopause are critical times in a woman’s life for a serious conversation with her physician about controlling cholesterol with diet, exercise and lifestyle changes, or some combination of drug therapy if necessary. Reducing cholesterol early may also reduce the potential for stroke and dementia related to cardiovascular events.
- Although the gap is narrowing, women still outlive men by about five years. That means more time to develop heart disease. Women are considerably less active than they should be in later years, making them more prone to heart attacks and strokes. Even small levels of activity make a difference, fending off depression, keeping blood vessels more flexible and increasing the strength of the heart. Safe physical activity at any age is essential for good cardiac health.