How Common Is Heart Disease In Women? Plus, Heart-Healthy Habits
While some conditions are more common in men or women, one thing remains true: Health education surrounding disease prevention has no sex or gender. What's more, it's important for everyone to tend to their overall health regardless of disease risk.
On a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, longevity-focused doctor Peter Attia, M.D., author of Outlive, dispels one common misconception in this space: Heart disease affects men significantly more than women. According to Attia, that could not be more false.
Ahead, he explains the reality of heart disease and how everyone can encourage a healthier heart early on.
How common is heart disease in women?
"It's easy to think of heart disease as a male disease, but it's actually the leading killer of women as well," Attia says. According to the CDC, this pans out to 1 in every 5 women in the U.S.1 dying from heart disease every year.
Plus, menopause can trigger a greater production in Apo-B, one of the markers of disease risk. Apo-B is a complex particle, but here's a quick explanation of how it impacts heart health: Apo-B is a protein found in many lipids within the arterial walls, and too much of it can be dangerous2.
Here's where it gets complicated: "Women will typically see a significant bump in their Apo-B as they transition through menopause3," Attia says. "And this explains two things. One, pre-menopause women have some protection from cardiovascular disease that might be mitigated or mediated through estrogen. Secondly, eventually women catch up in terms of heart disease risk once they lose the protection of estrogen."
Essentially, women may be at less risk of heart disease before menopause, but the risk gets significantly raised during and postmenopause. So saying heart disease affects more men than women is a complete misapprehension.
How to reduce your risk
Like any disease, there is way more than one piece of the puzzle. However, it's important to know the link between menopause and Apo-B; perhaps talk to your doctor if you're concerned about heart disease so they can help you build a personalized plan.
In the meantime, there are a few ways you can tend to your heart to ensure it performs its best, no matter what phase of life you're in right now. Here are a few tips, backed by experts and research:
Get more fiber.
We dive deep into the link between fiber and heart disease here, but here's a brief overview: According to a systematic review from the BMJ, high-fiber consumers have a 20% lower risk4 of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) compared to low-fiber consumers. What's more, a significantly reduced risk of 9% was seen for both CVD and coronary heart disease (CHD) per 7 grams of daily fiber consumed.
According to the National Academies, women need at least 25 grams of fiber per day, while men need at least 38 grams. Knowing that 95% of Americans are failing to consume enough fiber each day, it's fair to say everyone can use a bit more. So do your best to consume fiber-rich foods and call upon fiber supplements if you need extra support.
When you think of body composition and the risk of heart disease, you'll probably jump to body fat percentage as the main teller. However, a recent study in Nature aimed to shed some light on what influences heart health in women5: Surprisingly, body weight and body fat weren't at the top of the list. In fact, muscle mass may play a more important role.
The study analyzed 146 women between the ages of 16 and 58. Participants' cardiorespiratory fitness was measured using an exercise test, and researchers also collected their body fat percentage, fat-free mass index (a measure of fat-free tissue—like bone, muscle, and fluid), and mean arterial pressure (i.e., blood pressure in the arteries).
To sum up the results: Researchers found that the amount of fat-free mass (like muscle) you carry may play a bigger role in heart health than body fat or total body weight. They found that age plays a factor as well, which is important to call out, as women tend to lose muscle mass as they age.
All of this to say, building muscle mass is an important step in optimizing heart health. If you prioritize protein intake and take part in muscle-building exercises like resistance training, you'll be off to a great start.
If you want to know more about this study, check out our full explainer here, and feel free to follow Attia's longevity-boosting workout plan.
In addition to protein, you'll want to prioritize omega-3s. Specifically, marine omega-3 fatty acids EPA & DHA are found primarily in fish and fish oil supplements. Why? Research shows these are basically synonymous with heart health and longevity.
From supporting healthy triglyceride levels6 to enhancing circulation, these holistic (and seriously under-consumed) healthy fats deliver profound cardiovascular benefits7 that have a lasting impact on your heart health.
Consuming both EPA and DHA has even been found to lower blood pressure, which the FDA recognizes as a way8 to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for CHD.
For optimal heart-health benefits, find a sustainably sourced fish oil supplement that's tested for purity and delivers a minimum of 500 milligrams (ideally, closer to 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams, or 1 to 1.5 grams) of EPA plus DHA.
Not sure where to start? Here's a curated list of the best heart supplements on the market, according to a nutrition Ph.D.
Heart disease is a complex condition with many contributing factors. As studies show, women in menopause often see a significant bump in Apo-B particles, resulting in greater risk of heart disease during and after the life shift. If you're concerned about heart disease, have a conversation with your doctor to determine what lifestyle changes you may want to consider. But according to experts, these modifications above will help you get on the right track.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.