Risk Factors for Heart Disease in Women

Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women? If not, you’re not the only one. Traditionally considered a "man's disease," most heart disease research has focused on how to diagnose and treat the condition in men. As a result, a lot of people are unaware of the heart disease risk in women: it is the cause of death in one in three women, killing more women than all cancers combined.

What does this lack of awareness mean for you? Reducing your heart disease risk may not be the focus of your care. Risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure may not be well controlled. And since the symptoms of a heart attack for women  are often different from that of men, they may be overlooked in an emergency, resulting in a delay of critical care. Take control of your health by educating yourself about your heart disease risk, so you can ensure you get the care you deserve.

Get started by learning about your risk factors - both those you can and cannot control - and then start taking proactive steps to minimize those risks.

Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can Control

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure increases the heart’s workload, causing it to thicken and become stiffer. An increase in blood pressure can lead to heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and heart failure, so it’s important to know what it is and what it should be.

High Cholesterol

Your risk for heart disease goes up as your cholesterol increases. Make sure you know your LDL and HDL cholesterol numbers. Cholesterol goals differ depending on your age and risk factors. Your doctor can help you determine those goals and may recommend cholesterol-lowering medication.

Being Overweight

If you’re overweight - especially if you carry extra weight around your middle - you’re at a higher risk of developing heart disease, even if you don’t have any other risk factors. Extra weight can raise blood pressure, cholesterol and lead to diabetes, all contributing factors of heart disease.


Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, you’re five times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than women without diabetes.


If you smoke, your risk of developing heart disease is two to four times that of a non-smoker. Smoking also more than doubles the risk of sudden cardiac death in adults with established heart disease. Smoking decreases HDL (good) cholesterol, increases blood pressure and increases the tendency for blood to clot. The good news is people who stopped smoking after a first heart attack had half the risk of dying prematurely than did those who continued to smoke.

Physical Inactivity

Overall, heart disease is almost twice as likely to develop in inactive people than in those who are more active. If you’re inactive and overeat, you’re more likely to gain excess weight.


While not all research is clear on the link between stress and heart disease, stress does affect the body in many ways that may ultimately hurt your heart.

Too Little Sleep

Studies now suggest getting too little sleep on a regular basis puts you at higher risk of heart disease. Inflammatory markers related to heart disease were higher in women who got less than eight hours of sleep a night.

Diet & Nutrition

A diet plentiful in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, high fiber, fish, lean protein and low-fat dairy products can positively affect your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and weight.

Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, excess abdominal fat and abnormal cholesterol levels. These conditions lead to an increased risk for heart disease, as well as stroke and diabetes. Obesity seems to be a key factor in developing metabolic syndrome.

Heart Disease Risk Factors You Can’t Control


As you age, your risk for heart disease increases, especially after age 55. Menopause - which typically occurs around the age of 50 - can cause LDL (bad) cholesterol levels to rise sharply. Before menopause, the female hormone estrogen has some protective effect in maintaining adequate levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Estrogen also works to relax the smooth muscle of arteries, maintain normal blood pressure and prevent some forms of blood vessel damage. After menopause, the rate of heart disease-related death for women steadily increases.


Your genes and family history play an important role in your risk of developing heart disease. You’re more likely to develop heart disease or stroke if your close blood relatives have had them. And you’re at an even higher risk of heart disease if you have a family history of “early heart disease,” which means a father or brother who had heart disease before they were 55, or a mother or sister who had heart disease before they were 65.


African Americans have more severe high blood pressure than Caucasians, which puts them at a higher risk of heart disease. African-American women are 35% more likely to die of heart disease than Caucasian women, while Hispanic women face heart disease nearly 10 years earlier than Caucasian women. Pacific Islander women, long considered at low risk, now count heart disease as their second leading cause of death.

History of Heart Attack & Stroke

If you’ve already had a heart attack, you are at higher risk of having a second; 22% of women ages 40 to 69 who survive their first heart attack will have another or fatal coronary heart disease within five years. Twenty-two percent of women ages 40 to 69 who survive their first stroke will have another within five years. A transient ischemic attack (TIA or “mini-stroke”) also is a risk factor and predictor of stroke.

Awareness is just the first step in preventing heart disease. Once you understand your risk factors, it’s time to take action. If you’re unsure of your heart disease risk, take our heart risk assessment and then schedule an appointment with your SSM Health provider to discuss the results and learn what you can do to take control of your health. It just might save your life.

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