Feature Article

Women and heart disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, claiming the lives of 289,758 women in 2013.1 However, many people still think of heart disease as a "man's disease". The most common heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), though others include vascular disease and stroke.2,3 There are a number of other diseases that affect both men and women, as well as some that affect women more than men. Magnet resonance (MR) can enable physicians to learn more about a patient's heart disease.

Types of heart disease that affect men and women

Many heart diseases that affect men can also affect women. Because of the morbidity rate of heart disease, it is important to understand the warning signs and symptoms of each one, as well as when an episode is considered an emergency. Some common heart diseases that affect both genders are listed here:

  • Atherosclerosis (a sub-type of arteriosclerosis) occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries' walls, restricting blood flow once it is severe enough.2,4 If the plaque ruptures, a blood clot may for which could block blood flow all together. Some of its causes include high blood pressure, cholesterol, or triglycerides. Insulin resistance or disease inflammation may also raise the chances of having atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis can lead to coronary artery disease, which occurs when the heart becomes hardened and narrowed.5
  • Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, occurs when the heart doesn't pump blood as well as it should.2,6 It may be caused by coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity. The symptoms of heart failure may include shortness of breath, fatigue, arrhythmia, swelling of the abdomen, lack of appetite and chest pain. If you have chest pain, severe weakness or severe shortness of breath and cough up pink, foamy mucus, call 9-1-1 immediately.
  • Arrhythmia is a broad term that covers all forms of unusual heart beats, be they slow, fast, or irregular.2,7 Bradycardia is a slower than average heart rate, typically less than 60 beats per minute. Tachycardia is a fast heart rate, typically over 100 beats per minute. Arrhythmias can be brief or long lasting; long term arrhythmias can cause the heart to pump less effectively. This occurs when the heart's pacemaker develops an abnormal rhythm, the conduction pathway is interrupted or a different part of the heart takes over as pacemaker.
  • Atrial fibrillation (AF or AFib) (heart.org) is a type of arrhythmia which can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure or other complications.2,8 Some common symptoms of AFib include fatigue or tiredness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, fluttering in the chest, dizziness, weakness and chest pain or pressure. Chest pain or pressure is considered to be a medical emergency, so 9-1-1 should be called immediately in those cases.

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Other heart diseases affect women more than men. These diseases may even be common among women leading a healthy lifestyle. Vigilant patients may notice symptoms associated with these three diseases:

  • Angina has a number of different types, which occur in both men and women.2 Angina is chest pain or discomfort and affects about 4 million women in the U.S. Stable and variant angina, however, are more common among women. Stable angina can cause pain during physical activity or stress and goes away with rest. Variant angina, also called Prinzmetal's angina, is rare and is caused by spasms in the arteries. These spasms can be triggered by cold weather, stress or smoking.
  • Coronary microvascular disease (MVD) affects the walls and inner lining of the small arteries in the heart.8,9 It is similar to CHD in that it can lead to spams and decreased blood flow. It is sometimes called small vessel disease or small artery disease. MVD can cause angina which can last longer than 30 minutes in women.

MR and the treatment for heart disease

One of the common ways to monitor the effect heart disease is having on a patient is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MR provides images with excellent details about the structures and blood flow within the heart and the surrounding veins and arteries. Cardiac MR, also known as cardiovascular MR, utilizes radiofrequency signals to provide data which allows radiographers to create the images. Traditional MR can show the structures and anatomy of the heart. New techniques like 4D flow MRI can show the flow of blood into, out of and around the heart.

Women additionally need to pay attention for any signs of heart issues, because many people believe heart disease occurs more frequently in men. Many of these heart diseases overlap or have similar causes, meaning patients who are at risk for one may be at risk for others. MRI can help physician's visualize heart issues and other issues.

For more information, see our article "What is cardiac magnetic resonance?"


1. "Women and Heart Disease Fact Sheet." CDC.org. 23 August 2017. Web. 4 February 2019. <https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_women_heart.htm>.

2. Office on Women's Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Heart disease and women." womenshealth.org. 30 January 2019. Web. 4 February 2019. <https://www.womenshealth.gov/heart-disease-and-stroke/heart-disease/heart-disease-and-women>.

3. Mayo Clinic Staff. "Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors." MayoClinic.org. 9 January 2019. Web. 4 February 2019. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167>.

4. Mayo Clinic Staff. "Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis." MayoClinic.org. 24 April 2018. Web. 5 February 2019. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arteriosclerosis-atherosclerosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350569>.

5. NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "Coronary Artery Disease." MedlinePlus.gov. Web. 5 February 2019. <https://medlineplus.gov/coronaryarterydisease.html>.

6. Mayo Clinic Staff. "Heart failure." MayoClinic.org. 23 December 2017. Web. 5 February 2019. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-failure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373142>.

7. American Heart Association. "About Arrhythmia." heart.org. 30 September 2016. Web. 5 February 2019. <https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/arrhythmia/about-arrhythmia>.

8. American Heart Association. "What are the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)?" heart.org. 31 July 2016. Web. 5 February 2019. <https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/atrial-fibrillation/what-are-the-symptoms-of-atrial-fibrillation-afib-or-af>.

9. American Heart Association. "Coronary Microvascular Disease (MVD)." heart.org. 31 July 2015. Web. 6 February 2019. <https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/angina-chest-pain/coronary-microvascular-disease-mvd>.

10. Mayo Clinic Staff. "Small vessel disease." MayoClinic.org. 6 March 2018. Web. 6 February 2019. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/small-vessel-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20352117>.