Heart Disease Treatment in Women

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What is heart disease in women?

Heart disease is the most common cause of death among women. The vast majority of women (90%) have at least one risk factor for heart disease.

What is the treatment for heart disease in women?

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In 2004, for the first time, female-specific guidelines were developed by the American Heart Association (AHA) in recognition of the gender differences in both the mechanisms and presentation of cardiovascular disease. In 2011, the guidelines were updated and, also for the first time, the AHA discussed the characteristics of "ideal cardiovascular health." Ideal cardiovascular health includes:

  • absence of clinical CVD
  • ideal levels of total cholesterol (<200 mg/dL)
  • ideal blood pressure (<120/80 mm Hg)
  • ideal fasting blood glucose (<100 mg/dL)
  • lean body mass index (<25 kg/m2)
  • abstinence from smoking
  • regular physical activity at recommended levels
  • consumption of a healthy eating pattern such as a plant-based Mediterranean diet

Successful treatments for cardiovascular disease address all of these aspects using lifestyle changes as well as medications and surgical interventions (like angioplasty), if necessary.


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The classical heart healthy diet is low fat (<10% saturated fat and <300 mg cholesterol); however, low-fat diets tend to raise triglycerides (TG) and decrease HDL (known risk factors for women). New National Cholesterol Education Panel (NCEP) guidelines recognize that the type of fat matters as much, if not more, than the quantity. It is important to differentiate the good quality fats and eat sufficient quantities while limiting saturated fat, trans fats, and animal fat in general. Heart healthy fats should be consumed to make up 20% to 25% of the diet. Good fats are mono- and poly-unsaturated fats such as olive oil and plant fats (avocado, nuts, seeds, and coconut oil). Unhealthy fats come from animal sources (especially red meat) and processed foods (such as cookies and pastries, especially ones packaged for long shelf life). Several dietary patterns are consistent with this information and are known to protect against and help reverse cardiovascular disease. These include the Dietary Approaches to Step Hypertension (DASH) diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the Ornish vegetarian diet.

The DASH diet is characterized by being low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat. It is focused on fruits, vegetables, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. It is rich in whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts, and contains fewer sweets, added sugars, sugary beverages, and red meats than the typical American diet. The DASH diet has been studied extensively by researchers, and it consistently helps people lower blood pressure, lose weight, and improve cholesterol levels.

Another well-studied protective pattern is the Mediterranean diet. Adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern has been associated with lower all-cause mortality, less cardiovascular disease, as well as lower rates of dementia, diabetes, and cancer. Additionally, following a Mediterranean diet leads to improvement in overall health. A Mediterranean dietary pattern consists of high amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats such as olive oil and low-fat yogurt, plant and marine-based proteins, and moderate wine. Meats and sweets are only rarely consumed. Recently, the large PREDIMED trial compared a low-fat diet to two versions of a Mediterranean diet, enhanced with either olive oil or extra nuts. While all the diets reduced blood pressure, the Mediterranean diets reduced rates of myocardial infarction, stroke, and the number of deaths from cardiovascular causes over a period of about 5 years. The Mediterranean diet also reduced blood sugar and inflammation, as measured by high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP).

The Ornish vegetarian diet has also been well-studied and has been shown to not only treat but also reverse heart disease. The Ornish diet is very low in fat and includes more carbohydrate than the Mediterranean or DASH diet; however, the carbohydrates are from whole grains such as oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice and legumes such as beans and lentils. The research on the Ornish diet emphasizes that the diet is not the only answer; to reverse heart disease, people must make overall lifestyle changes including being physically active, addressing their emotional heart with group support, and practicing meditation or yoga.

What the DASH, Mediterranean, and Ornish diets have in common is that they are all based on unrefined fresh foods, primarily from plants. Importantly for women with cardiovascular disease, the DASH and Mediterranean dietary patterns are low in refined carbohydrates, which means they will help lower triglycerides and increase HDL -- two major contributors to cardiovascular disease for women.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/24/2014

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Heart Disease Treatment - Options Question: Which heart disease treatment options did your doctor present you with?
Heart Disease Treatment - Prevention Question: What strategies are you using for heart disease prevention?
Heart Disease Treatment - Prognosis Question: What's the prognosis after your heart disease diagnosis? How's your treatment going?
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Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women

Signs include hypertension, angina, edema (fluid accumulation in tissues), palpitations, and vague symptoms that are often confused with indigestion or musculoskeletal pain. Overall symptoms get worse with exertion and improve with rest. Women are more likely than men to experience unstable angina (chest pain or sensations that occur irregularly and unpredictably).

Some women experience classic angina symptoms such as chest pain or pressure but more commonly, women experience:

  • chest tightness
  • squeezing
  • burning
  • sense of discomfort