What are the signs of heart failure in women?

Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2024
Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiology, Interventional Cardiology

Mistakenly, some people believe heart disease mostly occurs in men; however, women are equally at risk for many types of heart disease. 

When you think about common causes of death among women, breast cancer likely comes to mind. Would you be surprised to know that heart disease causes more deaths each year among women than all types of cancer combined?

Heart disease encompasses many different medical conditions. For this blog, we are focusing on one heart disease in particular — heart failure. Keep reading to learn more about heart failure, and how it affects women differently than men.

What is heart failure?

Heart failure isn’t exactly what you may think from the name. If you develop heart failure, most likely your heart isn’t immediately going to stop beating or functioning and result in suddendeath. Instead, heart failure is a progressive disease, meaning it worsens gradually over time.

Heart failure usually occurs as a result of damage caused by another medical problem, such as high blood pressure, arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat), coronary artery disease (blockage in the blood vessels to the heart) or cardiomyopathy (acquired or inherited muscle disorder of the heart).

Over time, damage to the heart can impact its ability to pump blood effectively or relax efficiently in order to receive the blood from the organs. This leads to a variety of symptoms including but not limited to fatigue, shortness of breath, and fluid buildup in the body.

How does heart failure affect women?

You may know by now that heart attacks can present different in women than they do in men.Similarly, heart failure in women can also be different than in men. 

Usually, women tend to develop heart failure at an older age than men. Women are more likely to develop heart failure related to certain risk factors, including:

  • Chemotherapy medications used to treat breast cancer
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity 
  • Peripartum cardiomyopathy (a unique heart failure condition associated with pregnancy) 
  • Stress-induced cardiomyopathy

While coronary artery disease (heart artery blockage) is the most significant risk factor for heart failure in men, women tend to have different risk factors that contribute to heart failure. 

In addition to risk factors, the type of heart failure affecting women can be different than men. Two studies published in the early 2000s found that heart failure with preserved ejection fraction was diagnosed more often in women than men. What does that mean?

Heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, also called diastolic heart failure, is a type of heart failure that occurs when the heart can still pump effectively but is unable to relax efficiently to allow the blood back into the heart from the organs. This happens when the muscle in the left ventricle (the primary pumping chamber of the heart) stiffens, and it increases pressure inside the heart. This type of heart failure is treated differently than the types of heart failure that impact the pumping function of the heart.

What symptoms of heart failure should women watch for?

Wondering how to protect your health? Your best defense is a good offense! Healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercising regularly, eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables, not smoking, and getting enough sleep, can protect your heart.

It is also important to know the symptoms of heart failure, especially after menopause:

  • Fatigue
  • Fluid buildup (edema) in the abdomen, feet and ankles
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent cough
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Shortness of breath 

If you begin experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, check in with your primary care provider. They can determine the underlying cause of your symptoms and refer you to a cardiology heart failure specialist, if needed.

Learn more

Women face unique challenges and risk factors when it comes to their heart health. We’re here to help! The Women’s Heart Center at Georgia Heart Institute is designed to care for a woman’s heart at every age and stage of life. 

If you need treatment for heart failure, Georgia Heart Institute’s Heart Failure Treatment & Recovery Center offers a comprehensive, personalized approach to care that helps patients maintain their quality of life through access to specially trained care teams, advanced technology and clinical trials.

Vikram Raje, DO, FACC, FSCAI, is the current director of Georgia Heart Institute’s Heart Failure Treatment & Recovery Center.