One key aspect to maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle is being aware of your individual cardiovascular risk factors. We know that men and women who are overweight, have high blood pressure, smoke, are diabetic, or have increased cholesterol are more likely to develop heart disease. However, there are several cardiovascular risk factors which apply only to women. Below, we take a closer look at several female-specific risk factors:

Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy

Hypertensive disorders of pregnancy related such as gestational hypertension or pre-eclampsia only affect 5-10% of pregnant women, but they may increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease later in life. According to a recent study published in the journal Hypertension, women who experienced high blood pressure during pregnancy were more likely to develop high blood pressure later in life and have a higher cardiovascular disease risk profile than women whose blood pressure remained normal throughout pregnancy [1].

The authors suggest that women who experience hypertensive disorders of pregnancy be counseled on how to recognize and reduce other modifiable risk factors.

 Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a condition which occurs during pregnancy and hinders the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. While it normally resolves after pregnancy, it may leave women with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. A study which examined over 8,000 women found that those who experienced gestational diabetes during pregnancy were more likely to have low HDL or “good” cholesterol and higher levels to triglycerides – both factors which can contribute to heart disease [2]. This provides yet another example of how pregnancy-related conditions may impact heart health later in life.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder which affects women of reproductive age. In addition to causing reproductive issues such as irregular periods or infertility, women with PCOS may experience other health issues such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, or metabolic syndrome. Together, these conditions can increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease.

Menopause

Menopause marks the end of a woman’s reproductive life cycle which is characterized by the loss of menstrual cycles and a decrease in estrogen levels.  Post-menopausal women face a greater risk of heart disease compared to pre-menopausal women due to age and the loss of estrogen. This increased risk also extends to young women who experience premature menopause or have had their ovaries removed for surgical reasons. Even though estrogen is considered “heart-protective,” the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does not recommend that patients use hormone replacement therapy to prevent cardiovascular disease [3].

For a review on sex-specific cardiovascular risk factors, we recommend:

“Sex differences in cardiovascular risk factors and disease prevention.”

Appelman et al., Atherosclerosis. 2015; 241 (1): 211-218.

 

References:

1. Tooher et al., Hypertension. 2017; 70: 798-803.

2. Shostrom et al., Front Endocrinol (Lausanne). 2017; 8: 144.

3. ACOG Committee on Gynecologic Practice, 2013. No. 565. 

 

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