Women and heart attacks: why cardiovascular risk assessments are important

As one of the leading causes of death in women, heart disease is a big concern for a lot of people, leaving many wondering what they can do to lower their risk.

But preventing heart attacks and heart disease is not just about leading a healthy lifestyle  – it’s also about monitoring your cardiovascular health regularly and knowing the risk factors that could elevate your risk. 

A cardiovascular risk assessment offers a great way to do this effectively. In this blog post, we take a detailed look at what this type of assessment involves, while also highlighting the importance of looking after your heart health as a woman.

Understanding women's heart health

In the UK, more than 800,000 women are living with coronary heart disease and more than 30,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack each year. 

Studies also show that women are more likely to delay medical attention when having a heart attack because they don’t recognise the symptoms. These statistics show just how prevalent heart disease is in women, as well as how important it is to learn the symptoms of a heart attack.

While everyone has a heart, women’s hearts can be impacted by a variety of specific gender-related factors. Some of these may be avoidable, but others cannot be changed.


Going through menopause, for example, may affect your heart due to having decreased levels of oestrogen – a hormone that plays an important role in managing cholesterol and preventing fat from building up in your arteries. Oestrogen also helps keep your blood vessels open, ensuring blood flow is healthy and easy for your heart.

As your oestrogen levels decrease during menopause, fat can begin to build up in your arteries and blood vessels can become narrowed. Both of these factors can increase your risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks.


Pre-eclampsia is a condition that affects women in the second half of pregnancy and causes high blood pressure. If left untreated, pre-eclampsia can become serious and life-threatening. 

Pre-eclampsia should go away within six weeks after delivery. However, it has been linked to a higher risk of heart attack within seven years of delivery and the risk may remain elevated more than 20 years later.  

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes is when you develop high blood glucose levels during pregnancy which usually resolve after you give birth. Studies have found that women with gestational diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases – even after it went away.

Other factors not limited to women that can affect your cardiovascular health include: 

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure (outside of pre-eclampsia)
  • High cholesterol (not related to menopause)
  • Diabetes (outside of pregnancy)
  • Being overweight
  • A family history of heart disease

Women and heart attack warning signs

Women may be less likely to know when they’re experiencing a heart attack because their symptoms can differ from men’s. Women may also be less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease. This is why you must understand which warning signs to look out for. 

While symptoms can vary from person to person, the most common ones include: 

  • Sudden chest pain or discomfort
  • Pressure or tightness in the chest
  • Pain that spreads from the chest to one or both arms, neck, jaw, stomach or back
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Sweating or cold sweats
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden feelings of anxiety
  • Coughing or wheezing

You can experience multiple symptoms at once or just one on its own.

If you think you are having a heart attack, always call 999.

The importance of cardiovascular risk assessments for women

A cardiovascular risk assessment involves using a series of tests to predict your risk of developing heart conditions like cardiovascular disease, heart attacks or stroke. 

These risk assessments act as a safeguarding, preventative healthcare measure by offering you insight into your cardiovascular health. The results you receive can also lead to a personalised treatment or action plan being created around your lifestyle changes or by prescribing certain medications. 

While you may be used to experiencing symptoms of menopause and other hormonal changes, you may not know what impact they’re having on your heart. That’s why, as a woman, having a cardiovascular risk assessment can be so crucial.

Key components of a cardiovascular risk assessment

Cardiovascular risk assessments can vary depending on where you have them carried out. However, there are some key components that most risk assessments will include, such as:

  • Your personal medical history
  • Previous or current problematic symptoms 
  • If you are going through menopause or pregnant
  • If you have had pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes
  • Your family’s medical history
  • Your weight and height are taken to make sure you have a healthy body mass index (BMI) 
  • Lifestyle choices such as smoking, how much alcohol you drink and how much exercise you get

Once your doctor has all of this information available, they will calculate your potential risk of developing heart disease in the future. You will then be provided with personalised advice on how you can better your heart health and reduce your risk of heart disease.

Cardiovascular challenges unique to women

When it comes to cardiovascular health, women can face some unique challenges. Unlike lifestyle factors like smoking or not exercising, some of the other risk factors that affect women’s heart health cannot be changed, such as menopause or pre-eclampsia.

That’s why undergoing a cardiovascular risk assessment as a woman is so important. Since many unavoidable or unchangeable factors can increase your risk of heart disease, knowing what your risk is can allow you to make appropriate changes and actively work to reduce it.

However, to make sure you fully understand how to care for your heart health, it’s important to separate the fact from the fiction by recognising some of the common misconceptions about women’s cardiovascular health.

Common misconceptions about women’s cardiovascular health

There is a very common misconception that going on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – the most effective treatment for menopause – can increase your risk of heart problems. However, this is not the case.

While HRT can slightly increase your risk of blood clots and stroke, the risk is extremely low for women under 60. Most women will have gone through menopause by this age, so would not need HRT – decreasing the cardiovascular risk.

Another common misconception is that having no symptoms means there’s nothing wrong. But this isn’t necessarily true either. Some health problems can be asymptomatic (cause no symptoms), and be overlooked until they become advanced and challenging to treat.

It’s also a misconception that if you don’t have a family history of heart disease you don’t have a risk of developing it in the future. Heart disease is caused by a large number of factors as well as your family history, so undergoing a cardiovascular risk assessment that takes all of your personal circumstances into account will provide you with a much clearer indication.

Women and heart attacks

Preventive measures and lifestyle changes to protect your heart

If you find out you have a high risk of cardiovascular disease, there are several things you can do to help lower it and protect your heart health. For example:

  • Eat a healthy, nutritious diet – low-fat, high-fibre diets with plenty of fruits and vegetables can be very beneficial for your heart. Try cutting down on how much processed meat you eat. Stick to lean proteins and opt for foods high in unsaturated fat like oily fish and avocado. Reducing how much sugar you eat can also lower your risk of diabetes which can therefore reduce your risk of diabetes-related cardiovascular problems.
  • Exercise and stay active – you don’t have to go to the gym every day, but staying physically active is essential for your heart. Something as simple as walking, swimming or riding a bike regularly can support healthy heart function. Try to find an exercise that you enjoy and it won’t feel like a chore keeping up with it.
  • Maintain a healthy weight – the higher your weight is, the more at risk you may be of cardiovascular disease. That’s why eating and maintaining a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly are so important.
  • Give up smoking – smoking contributes to the development of atherosclerosis which causes your arteries to become narrowed and is the main cause of blood clots in the heart in those under 50. By giving up, you can support your heart and your overall health.
  • Lower how much alcohol you drink – try not to drink more than the recommended number of units per week. Women are advised to have no more than 14 units of alcohol each week and spread their consumption over three or more days to avoid ‘binge drinking’ and an increased risk of heart attack.
  • Manage your other health conditions – unmanaged high blood pressure and diabetes can lead to cardiovascular complications and increase your risk of heart disease. Always make sure to follow your doctor’s advice and take the prescription medication they provide you with to reduce your risk of cardiovascular problems.

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