Two women lean over a fence and smile at the camera.
Women should understand all their risk factors for heart disease—and don’t write off troubling symptoms. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Did you know heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women?

About 300,000 women die from the disease each year.

While awareness of the disease continues to grow, misconceptions still abound—especially about how the disease uniquely affects women.

“Most heart disease is preventable, and it kills more women than breast cancer and the next seven causes of death,” said Thomas Boyden, MD, medical director of preventive cardiology with Spectrum Health.

Dr. Boyden and Spectrum Health offered five facts that could help save your life—or the life of a woman you love.

1. It’s the No. 1 killer

Heart disease accounts for one in three deaths annually. Not only does it kill more women than breast cancer, it’s more deadly to women than all forms of cancer combined.

2. Symptoms can be murky

Women younger than 50 are twice as likely to die of a heart attack when compared to men of the same age. Too often, women don’t recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, which means they also wait longer to seek help.

Much as with men, chest pain is the prime symptom of a woman’s heart attack, Dr. Boyden said. But women can also experience a heart attack without the stereotypical “elephant sitting on the chest” pressure.

Other critical signs include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

Women should recognize shortness of breath as problematic if they find it creeps up even when they’re not particularly active, Dr. Boyden said.

“If you’re just taking a walk to the mailbox and you’re short of breath, then that’s not normal,” Dr. Boyden said.

3. There’s greater risk post-menopause

Risk of heart disease increases after menopause.

Estrogen helps protect against the formation of plaque in blood vessels, helping them to better accommodate blood flow, Dr. Boyden said. After menopause women lose that protection, which can escalate risk.

4. Risk factors abound

About half of Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease. In fact, 47 percent of all Americans have at least one of these three key risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Other risk factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Poor diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use

5. Lifestyle improves outlook

Good lifestyle choices can do wonders to reduce your risk of heart disease. Most heart disease is preventable, Dr. Boyden said. He urges women to take charge of their health and adopt a healthy lifestyle.

On this front, his tips include:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Know your numbers: blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Be physically active by taking a brisk 20- to 30-minute walk every day.
  • Eat a healthy diet. If you aren’t ready to be vegan, his personal recommendation is the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. The eating plan also limits red meat, turning instead to fish and poultry.

Ultimately, he urges women to take charge of their heart health. It takes time and attention, but it’s worth it.

“Many women make sure they take care of their families, but not necessarily themselves,” Dr. Boyden said.