Do women have unique risk factors for heart disease?

Dr. Tamara B. Horwich, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

There are some risk factors for heart disease that are unique to women. Some risk factors particular to women include:

  • history of pregnancy related hypertension (eclampsia)
  • gestational diabetes
  • breast cancer chemotherapy and radiation
  • increased risk around the time of menopause

Otherwise, women have many of the same risk factors for heart disease as men, including hypertension, high cholesterol, family history of heart disease, diabetes. 

Dr. Alvaro A. Gomez, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Women who have certain unique risk factors for heart disease should especially consider the possibility that they have heart disease or are experiencing a heart attack when symptoms arise. These risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • diabetes
  • high cholesterol
  • overweight
  • postmenopausal
  • a family history of heart disease
  • excessive alcohol use
  • sleep apnea
  • an inactive lifestyle
  • an unhealthy diet
  • elevated C-reactive protein (CRP), indicating the body’s level of inflammation 

Women should not ignore their own health while focusing on the health of their families. Get checked out regularly by your doctor. Doctors have many ways to prevent bad things from happening, but the first step is to be aware of your own risks.

While some risk factors, like age and family history, can’t be controlled, others can and should be. Eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, quit smoking and control your blood sugar to prevent the progression of heart disease. And for those who follow a healthy lifestyle but are plagued by heart disease, statins and other medications have been proven successful in managing heart disease and preventing heart attacks.

The medical community has come a long way in realizing women are at risk for heart disease and heart attacks. Awareness, awareness and more awareness will continue to make more women realize they should listen to their hearts. 

This content originally appeared online at Baptist Health South Florida.

Dr. Rozy A. Dunham, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

One risk factor for heart disease that is unique to women is the use of hormone replacement therapy. There are a lot of women who use hormones post-menopausally to reduce the symptoms of menopause. There is equivocal data on how hormones affect heart disease, but there has been some data to support that women who use hormone replacement therapy can be at increased risk for blood clots and heart disease.

Other risk factors can go all the way back to the pregnancy years. Women who have pregnancy-induced hypertension, gestational diabetes, eclampsia or pre-eclampsia are at higher risk later in life for cardiovascular disease as well.

The major risk factors for heart disease are the same in women as in men. Things like diabetes, smoking, hypertension, obesity—those are risk factors that are common across gender. But certain risk factors are actually more potent in women than in men. Tobacco smoking or cigarette smoking is a much stronger risk factor in young women than it is in men. So, if you are a woman who smokes, you are at higher risk than an equivalent male of the same age who smokes. Diabetes and hypertension are more potent risk factors in young women. So, though they're common across gender, those risk factors tend to be stronger in women in terms of predicting heart disease.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Most risk factors for heart disease between men and women are shared, despite some gender differences in the symptoms and types of heart disease. Individual risk is more dependent on genetics, habits and lifestyle decisions than it is on gender. Following are heart disease risk factors for men and women:

  • age 45 or older
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • untreated diabetes
  • smoking
  • obesity and a sedentary lifestyle
  • family history of heart disease

While this list is the same for men and women, there are important differences. Some of the factors are more serious for women. For instance, diabetes is more predictive of heart disease for women than for men. And smoking elevates the risk more for women. The good news is that the risk from smoking decreases dramatically within two or three years of a person quitting. In addition, women are generally more susceptible to emotional stress, further amplifying their risk.

Regular, age-appropriate screenings can help combat risk factors, along with eliminating the risks over which people have control: quitting smoking, seeking treatment for diabetes and hypertension and regularly exercising and watching the diet. The American Heart Association recommends that women as young as 20 years old be screened for cardiovascular disease, with the frequency of follow-up screenings based on individual risk factors.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.

Many of the risk factors for heart disease are the same in women and men; however, key differences do exist. Some risk factors are within our power to take control over and others we cannot change.

Risk factors you cannot control:

  • Increasing age (including menopausal changes)
  • Gender
  • Family history of heart disease (which includes ethnicity)

Risk factors you may be able to control:

  • Smoking and using other tobacco products
  • High cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes (Heart disease risk in women with diabetes is higher than for men.)
  • Physical inactivity
  • Being overweight or obese (Women who carry weight in their midsection have a higher risk of heart disease.)
  • Metabolic syndrome, which is three or more of the following: high triglycerides, low levels of the “good” (HDL) cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure or an above-average waistline
  • Stress
  • High levels of C-reactive protein (an indicator for inflammation)

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing heart disease. Also, the greater the level of each risk factor, the greater the risk. By decreasing these risk factors, you may reduce your risk of developing heart disease.


Over the past several decades, there has been a significant reduction in heart disease deaths in men, but such reductions for women have lagged behind. More women then men die of heart disease every year, but the risk factors for both men and women are much the same.

The risk factors remain high LDL and low HDL cholesterol levels, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking and family history.

The biggest problem is that many women don’t make the connection between risk factors and their own risk for developing heart disease. It is estimated that one in three women have some form of cardiovascular disease.

Moreover, heart disease patterns differ for women, and sometimes are harder to detect. When appropriate, hormone replacement therapy should be considered only for menopausal symptoms since it does not prevent heart disease.

Dr. Suzanne M. Steinbaum, DO
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Women's unique risk factor for heart disease is the existence of estrogen in their bodies. Watch cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, discuss how the fluctuation of this hormone throughout a woman's lifespan can impact her risk for heart disease.

Continue Learning about Heart Disease

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.