Coronary artery disease, or CAD, is the most common type of heart disease and the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. It oftentimes develops slowly, usually over the years, and the warning signs may not present themselves until a severe blockage occurs. That’s why coronary artery disease is known as the “silent killer.”
CAD is caused by the dangerous thickening and narrowing of the arteries brought on by plaque buildup. This disrupts the flow of oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to the heart, which in turn can lead to significant heart problems.
Over time, as the heart works harder, struggling to pump efficiently, the chance of a heart attack or other heart complications increases. Some people can have coronary artery disease for many years and not show any signs.
Also, CAD differs in men and women, causing gender to play an important role in the symptoms, treatments, and outcome of a patient’s heart care.
How Coronary Artery Disease Differs in Men and Women
Women have risk factors that men do not.
This is due to risk factors only found in women, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), primary ovarian insufficiency, and preeclampsia, which can increase the probability of coronary artery disease. Most of these risk factors tend to develop during pregnancy.
Men are at risk much earlier than women.
It is assumed that women’s exposure to estrogen offers them some protection from CAD until after menopause. The estrogen level in women drops after menopause, causing the risk for CAD to increase. Additionally, CAD usually develops seven to ten years later in women than men.
Different symptoms in women and men.
Women usually experience subtler CAD symptoms three or four weeks before a heart attack, whereas men’s symptoms are more obvious, such as chest tightening and heart palpitations. More of these symptoms are discussed in the next section.
CAD is harder to diagnose in women than in men.
An angiogram is a standard procedure to identify the narrowing of large arteries. However, oftentimes CAD affects small arteries in women that cannot be clearly seen on the X-ray, making it harder to diagnose.
Women are not always prescribed certain heart medications
A study shows that women were less likely to receive heart medications, such as statins and aspirin, compared to men. This put them at a greater risk of developing a blood clot and the possibility of having cardiovascular disease, including CAD.
Cardiovascular disease is the term for all types of diseases that affects the heart or blood vessels. This includes coronary artery disease. The onset of sudden fatigue, clammy skin, or sweating when someone is not exerting themselves, like making the bed, are all indicators of coronary artery disease.
Because CAD develops over time, the symptoms depend on the stage of the illness. To diagnose CAD, your doctor will look at markers such as blood pressure, cholesterol profile, and blood glucose as well as your health history and family history. This information helps to determine your odds of a heart attack or stroke, especially since men and women experience CAD differently.
Common Warning Signs of Coronary Artery Disease in Men
- Heart palpitations
- Dizziness or lightheaded
- Chest pain or a tightening (like an elephant is sitting on your chest)
- Pressure or pain in the middle of the chest, which can spread to the arm
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Pain in the back, neck, left shoulder, arms, jaw, or abdomen
- Cold sweats
Common Warning Signs of Coronary Artery Disease in Women
- Chest pain
- Unusual fatigue that may last for several days
- Neck, back, or jaw pain
- Sleeping disturbance
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
Tests for Diagnosing Coronary Artery Disease
- Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG). It measures the electrical activity of your heartbeat when resting.
- Exercise stress test (treadmill test). It will measure your heart rate while on a treadmill when the heart must pump harder.
- Coronary calcium testing. It is a CT scan that provides images of the heart between beats, and plaque and calcium buildup.
- High sensitivity C-reactive protein blood test. It indicates your levels of inflammation.
- Echocardiography. It is an ultrasound image of the heart.
- Chest X-ray. It shows an image of the heart, lungs, and other chest organs.
- Coronary angioplasty. It is a procedure where an expandable balloon is used to open narrowing arteries.
- Cardiac catheterization. It is a test that inserts a thin tube into an artery to check for blockages.
Treating heart disease includes lifestyle changes, medication, and specific procedures to help open blood vessels. Whether you are a man or a woman, it is never too late to lower your risk of a heart attack.
Because coronary artery disease symptoms are usually not present for years, it allows for an opportunity for prevention. Living with the possibility of developing heart disease can be daunting, so making heart care should be extremely important.
Preventions for Coronary Artery Disease
- Quit smoking
- Exercise regularly
- Eat a healthier diet
- Decrease stress triggers
- Reduce cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Control diabetes
If you are concerned about coronary artery disease or have questions about one of the many cardiovascular diseases, contact Dr. Corwin A Thomas with CT Cardio. Dr. Thomas and the staff are family-friendly and highly qualified to help you understand your condition and learn better heart care practices.