The leading cause of death among women in the United States is heart disease. It accounts for a staggering 20 percent of female deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Coronary artery disease, also commonly known as coronary heart disease or atherosclerosis, is the most common type of heart disease. Although it primarily affects women later in life, younger women can have the condition as well. More than 6 percent of women over the age of 19 are afflicted with coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack or heart failure.

Women are at higher risk than men for certain heart conditions. These include cardiac syndrome X, angina (chest pain) and broken heart syndrome (stress-induced cardiomyopathy). Women can be affected by several other heart conditions, as well. Heart failure, heart valve disease, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and atrial fibrillation (AFib) are among other common heart conditions women experience.

Prevention

Several risk factors for heart disease cannot be modified. Family history, race, gender, menopause and age all play a role in heart disease. But many risk factors can be changed, according to Cleveland Clinic. To reduce your risk for disease:

  • quit smoking

  • lower your total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides

  • increase your HDL (good) cholesterol

  • reduce your blood pressure if it is high

  • keep diabetes under control

  • maintain a healthy body weight

  • eat heart-healthy foods

  • exercise regularly

  • reduce your stress

Also, an alcoholic beverage a day may offer some benefit to your heart by increasing your HDL cholesterol. But medical experts caution against more than one drink per day. Studies have found high alcohol consumption can damage the heart. Although some studies suggest alcohol may be beneficial in moderation, others have shown the opposite. Cleveland Clinic recommends if you don't already drink alcohol, don't begin.

Heart attack signs

Women can experience all the same symptoms as men. Often, though, women experience heart attacks differently. Most notably, women don't always experience crushing chest pain. Instead, they may feel tightness or pressure in their chest. As a result, symptoms can go unnoticed or are easily dismissed. If the pain or discomfort goes away and then comes back or lasts for more than a few minutes, it could be a symptom.

Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Pain, discomfort, weakness or heaviness in either arm

  • Discomfort in the neck, jaw, upper back, shoulders or stomach

  • Indigestion, nausea or vomiting

  • Cold sweats

  • Fatigue

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

What to do if you're having a heart attack

Call 911 immediately and have them dispatch emergency medical services (EMS). This is usually faster than having someone drive you to the hospital.

Also, if you're in a public place, such as work or a store, a defibrillator may be available. Ask whomever you see first to check. Defibrillators come with easy instructions and could save your life.

Finally, take an aspirin, says Anthony Komaroff, MD, Editor-in-Chief of "Harvard Health Letter." He recommends a standard dose of 325 mg that isn't coated. "Chew it, and then swallow it with a glass of water," says Komaroff," to quickly get it into your system. This can slow blood clotting and limit damage to your heart."


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Kimberly Blaker is a freelance parenting writer. She's also founder and director of KB Creative Digital Services, a niche marketing agency for the healthcare and mental health industries at kbcreativedigital.com.