09:33 AM

Women: Be kind to your heart

Northwestern Medicine cardiologists offer tips for women’s heart health

Lisa Pudusseri and Kristina Degesys

PALOS HEIGHTS, Ill. – Feb. 1, 2023 – Cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, causing more deaths than all forms of cancer combined. Among females 20 years and older, nearly 45% are living with some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association. Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital cardiologists urge women to pay attention to symptoms and risk factors of heart disease.

“Women and men experience very different symptoms when they have coronary artery disease. In fact, it is a more difficult diagnosis to make in women,” said Kristina Quinn Degesys, MD, a cardiologist at the Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Palos Hospital. “Chest pain is still the most common symptom, as it is in men. However, women are more likely to have different symptoms, such as arm and jaw pain. This is why women often have delayed diagnoses of acute coronary syndrome.”

Women often have more subtle symptoms. For example, women often describe chest pain as a pressure, tightness or achiness in the center of the chest. Because chest pain experienced by women is often less severe than what is described by men, women should take it seriously even when chest pain seems mild.

Other symptoms of heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort lasting longer than 20 minutes in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath, even without chest pain
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat or feeling faint or woozy
  • Fast heartbeat (palpitations)
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Problems breathing
  • Indigestion, loss of appetite or nausea
  • Anxiety

Not everyone experiencing a heart attack will have all the warning signs. The most important thing is to recognize symptoms as a possible heart attack. Getting help early can prevent lasting heart damage.

“In general, women are often caregivers for children, spouses and parents. So quite often, women do not prioritize their health. Almost half of all Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol or smoking. It's important to regularly monitor your numbers,” said Lisa Pudusseri, DO, a cardiologist at the Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Palos Hospital. “If something does not feel right with your body, please don't delay seeking medical care. It also means following a heart healthy diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight.” 

In addition, Dr. Degesys adds that it is important to pick the right test for diagnosis of coronary artery disease in women. Women have a higher risk of a false positive exercise stress test without imaging.

“The addition of imaging with stress testing is helpful for women. Coronary CT angiography is an important test to consider in women who are at risk for coronary artery disease,” said Dr. Degesys. “Because of this, it's a good idea for women who have risk factors for coronary artery disease such as family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes to visit a cardiologist to discuss evaluation and prevention strategies.”

Women and men with parents or siblings with heart disease are more likely to develop heart disease themselves. A significant family history is present when a father or brother develops heart disease before the age of 55 or a mother or sister develops heart disease before the age of 65. No one can control his or her family history. Therefore, it is very important for individuals with a family history of heart disease to control any other risk factors to stay healthy.

February is American Heart Month, a time when the nation spotlights heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans. The first Friday of American Heart Month, Feb. 5, is also National Wear Red Day as part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women initiative.

To learn more about cardiology services at Northwestern Medicine, visit