Heart health in women and how to prevent heart attacks

Women in America should be aware of one of their top enemies: heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. and was the root cause for 1 in every 4 female deaths in 2013.

Many women may brush off the serious risk that cardiovascular problems can pose because they mistakenly view heart disease as primarily affecting men. The truth is that approximately the same number of men and women are at risk for heart disease.

Others may believe that, since they feel fine, there's little chance that an event like a heart attack or stroke could happen to them. The fact is, however, that many women don't feel any symptoms of heart disease until they experience a serious and potentially life-threatening event, CDC reported.

Here's what women should know about keeping their hearts healthy and preventing cardiovascular disease:

Symptoms of heart disease in women

Even though heart disease affects men and women fairly equally, their symptoms could be vastly different. Before and during a heart attack, men tend to experience the "typical" symptoms, like chest pain, while women are less likely to feel pain or pressure in the chest, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Instead, a woman may show heart attack symptoms such as:

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness or fatigue.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Arm pain or neck, jaw, upper back or abdominal discomfort.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Sweating.

The difference in the way heart attacks feel to men and women could be because women are more likely to develop small vessel heart disease, which involves blockages forming in smaller, supply arteries to the heart instead of or in addition to blockages in their main arteries.

Women heart

Women may experience symptoms of heart attack that aren't commonly associated with coronary disease, like nausea or dizziness.

Other types of heart disease show symptoms in other ways. Here are a few common types, according to the CDC:

Stroke symptoms:

  • Sudden weakness, numbness or inability to move body parts on one side of the body.
  • Confusion.
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech.
  • Difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes.
  • Sudden dizziness or loss of coordination or balance.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Sudden and severe headache.

Heart failure symptoms:

  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Swelling in the legs, feet, abdomen or ankles.

Arrhythmia symptoms:

  • A fluttering feeling near the heart.

While knowing how various heart complications feel when they occur is important, it's just as critical to understand how early symptoms of heart disease can present themselves. Harvard Health Publishing reported that women experience these symptoms about one month before a heart attack:

  • Unusual fatigue.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Indigestion.
  • Anxiety.
  • Racing heart.
  • Weak or heavy arms.

These are remarkably similar to the symptoms women commonly feel when they are experiencing a heart attack. Unfortunately, many women shrug off these symptoms as signs of sleepiness or anxiety, and physicians may instead associate them with anxiety disorders more so than early signs of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

As such, it's important that doctors keep an open mind about the abnormalities women bring up with them, keeping in mind that heart disease is common among women. Additionally, women can work to prevent the occurrence of coronary problems by making some lifestyle changes.

How women can prevent heart disease

Good health starts with diet. Women who fuel their bodies with heart-healthy foods are less likely to develop heart disease down the road. Here are some helpful tips for planning healthful meals:

Foods to include:

  • Vegetables and fruits.
  • Whole grains.
  • Low-fat milk and other dairy products.

Avoid foods high in:

  • Saturated fats, like fatty red meats, chicken or turkey skin, butter, lard and whole-milk dairy products.
  • Cholesterol, like butter, whole-fat dairy products like cream or saturated vegetable oils, including coconut, palm and palm kernel oil.
  • Sodium, like chips, cottage cheese, breads and bagels and soups, according to Health.
  • Sugar - look for words like "glucose," "sucrose," "lactose," and corn syrups.

Beyond diet, women should introduce regular exercise into their weekly routines. Adults should get 2.5 hours of exercise each week, CDC noted. This can be broken throughout the week - a half-hour workout five days a week would meet this goal.

Additionally, cutting out alcohol and tobacco can lower the risk of heart disease.

Finally, women who have a family history of heart disease are predisposed to experiencing coronary complications as well. Knowing family history and taking actions to monitor health throughout the years can help prevent heart disease, or seek treatment when early symptoms emerge.