Heart Disease and Women Part 2: Traditional Cardiac Risk Factors

Heart - Female Organs - Human AnatomyWomen, as well as their healthcare providers, tend to underestimate risk of heart disease in women. The woman in the case example last week presented with six risk factors for heart disease.  Age, gender, family history and ethnic background are the only risk factors that cannot be altered; all of the others can be prevented. By midlife (40 to 50 years of age) almost all women have at least one cardiac risk factor (more than 80%) and the burden of heart disease increases synergistically with the presence of each risk factor. Among women, ages 18-39 years old, followed for an average of 31 years, those with 1 or fewer risk factors had 88% less cardiovascular mortality compared with those who had 2 or more risk factors. This is why the American Heart Association recommends that prevention of cardiovascular risk factors in women begin at an early age. The following paragraphs describe each of the risk factors traditionally associated with heart disease and their impact on women and their health.

Obesity: Incidence of obesity in the U.S. is greater than any other country with 24 states reporting rates of obesity over 30%. The prevalence of heart disease and death are the highest in these states as well. Non-Hispanic black women compared to other racial groups have the highest obesity rates (49.6%). The incidence of obesity among post-menopausal women has been reported as high as 40% and even when women do not gain additional weight, their weight is redistributed to the abdomen which is associated with higher rates of heart disease. Women who are obese have 2-3 times greater risk of an acute cardiac event compared to women who are not overweight.

Dyslipidemia: Elevated serum levels for low density lipoprotein, triglycerides, and total cholesterol as well as low levels of high density lipoprotein are all associated with heart disease in women. Data from the Nurse’s Health Study showed significantly higher risk for myocardial infarction and ischemic heart disease among women who had a higher intake of saturated fat in their diet. All of the major treatment guidelines recommend similar approaches for treatment of men and women and yet women are less likely to be prescribed lipid lowering medication or achieve recommended goals for cholesterol compared to men. This finding supports the role of nurses in informing women about risk factors and helping to advocate for treatment consistent with guideline recommendations.

Diabetes: The number of women diagnosed with diabetes has tripled since 1980 and is now more common in women than men. Women with diabetes experience more serious cardiovascular disease and have a cardiovascular mortality rate twice that of diabetic men. Women with diabetes have 6 times higher risk of cardiovascular death compared with women without diabetes. Diabetes is considered the second most significant risk factor for heart disease.

Metabolic syndrome: This refers to the clustering of obesity, dyslipidemia, diabetes, and hypertension in an individual. Women with metabolic syndrome have significantly increased prevalence of atherosclerotic disease and higher cardiovascular mortality rates than women who do not.

Physical inactivity: Among women 18 years of age and older, only about a third engage in regular physical activity. Women report lower levels of physical activity compared to men which contributes to risk for heart disease. Although the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation programs in reducing cardiovascular risk after a cardiac event are well known, women are referred by their health care provider  at lower rates than men. Those who are referred have low attendance rates compared to men and are significantly less likely to complete cardiac rehabilitation.

Hypertension: Women with hypertension have greater risk of heart disease compared to men with hypertension. Hypertensive women have three to four times the risk of heart disease compared to women with normal blood pressure. Women with hypertension are less often diagnosed than men and when diagnosed and treated, the condition is not as well controlled as in men. Furthermore, hypertension in non-Hispanic black women tends to be more severe, treated less adequately and results in significant cardiac morbidity and mortality. Pregnant women and women older than 65 years of age are also at high risk of developing hypertension.

Tobacco use: Women who smoke are at 25% greater risk of ischemic heart disease than men who smoke. Women who smoke experience significantly higher rates of fatal and non-fatal ischemic heart events compared to women who do not smoke. The largest difference in risk between smokers and non-smokers was among women less than 49 years of age. Women who smoke more than 24 cigarettes a day have a tenfold increase in risk for myocardial infarction compared to non-smokers. Smoking is considered the most preventable cardiac risk factor.

Psychosocial: Depression is a major risk factor for ischemic heart disease and this mental health disorder is twice as common in women compared to men. In addition lack of social relationships, particularly loneliness, in women is associated with greater cardiac morbidity and mortality. Also two studies have found hostility to be a significant predictor of risk for ischemic heart disease in women. Interestingly several studies failed to find a correlation between Type A personality traits and heart disease among women.

Hormones: Postmenopausal women are believed to be more vulnerable to heart disease because of the absence of estrogen. However large clinical trials of postmenopausal women receiving hormone replacement have not shown that it reduces heart disease, suggesting that the relationship between hormones and heart disease is complex and not yet well understood. Women who take oral hormonal contraceptives are at increased risk of heart disease especially in the presence of other cardiovascular risk factors.

The rate of heart disease increases with the number of traditional risk factors present. This is true of both men and women. In Ms. Locke’s case (the example in last week’s post) there were six risk factors for heart disease; which one of these was not preventable? What were the other five risk factors? What nursing interventions should be included in her chronic disease care plan?

The use of traditional risk factors alone has been criticized as underestimating heart disease risk in women, particularly those with subclinical disease. Improving risk estimation and detection of heart disease in women has led to the identification of newer or non-traditional risk factors. Next week we will look at the new or non-traditional risk factors for heart disease in relationship to women’s health.

For more about nursing care of patients in correctional settings with cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases see Chapters 6 and 9 of the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order a copy directly from the publisher or from Amazon today!


McSweeney, J.C., et al. (2016) Preventing and experiencing ischemic heart disease as a woman: State of the Science. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation:133.

Halm, M. A (2014) Women and Heart Disease. NetCE Course # 33221. Accessed March 2016 at http://www.netce.com/courseoverview.php?courseid=1001

Photo credit: © decade3d – Fotolia.com

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