A woman shapes her hands into a heart. The woman is wearing a red ribbon that symbolizes heart disease.
Think women are exempt from heart troubles? Think again. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Heart disease is often thought of as a problem that is common for men, but you may be surprised to know that it continues to be the leading cause of death in women. Yes, women.

In fact, more women are diagnosed with heart disease than all cancers combined.

Since 1984, women have higher mortality rates as a result of heart disease compared to men. Even more disturbing is that women are typically diagnosed with coronary artery disease about 10 years later than men, and the prevalence of heart disease rises quickly after the onset of menopause.

So, why are so many people surprised by this information?

The answer may be related to the differences in the symptoms women experience compared to men during a heart attack. In fact, nearly half of women experiencing an acute heart attack report no chest pain at all, and 64 percent of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease do not have any of the classic warning signs.

Although shortness of breath is the most common symptom women experience, others include nausea, weakness, palpitations and mid-back pain. Some women do experience the more common symptoms of chest discomfort/pain, sweating, neck or throat pain (feeling of choking), shoulder pain, arm pain, anxiety or heartburn.

Because there are such varied signs of heart attacks in women, it is so important for women to be aware of these symptoms and to know how to reduce their risk for heart disease.

For women, there are certain risk factors for heart disease that you can control, including high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, low estrogen levels, and use of hormone replacement therapy. Diabetes is also a risk that you can work to control, and it’s extremely important because diabetes increases the risk of heart disease significantly more in women than men.

Unfortunately, there are also several risk factors for heart disease that you can’t change, including:

  • Age—your risk doubles every 10 years after age 55.
  • Family history of coronary artery disease before age 55 in men and age 65 in women.
  • Race—African-Americans have a higher risk for heart disease.

The good news is that there are several things you can do to reduce your risk for heart disease:

  • Quit smoking—or if you don’t currently smoke, don’t start!
  • Exercise at least three to four times per week for at least 40 minutes each time, or 60-90 minutes each time if you need to lose weight.
  • Reduce your intake of saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.
  • Visit your doctor and ask for help with improving your blood pressure and getting your cholesterol under control.
  • Lose weight (if you are currently overweight) by reducing your caloric intake, increasing physical activity, and meeting with a weight-loss specialist.