Myths & facts about women’s heart health

by Carolyn Thomas   @HeartSisters

Myth:  Most women die from cancer:

♥ Fact: Six times more women will die from heart disease this year than will die from breast cancer. In fact, this year heart disease will kill more women than all forms of cancer combined.

Myth:  Heart disease is a man’s problem:

♥ Fact:  Until 2012, more women than men died of cardiovascular disease throughout North America. It wasn’t until 2013 that the number of deaths by women fell slightly below those of men. But women are still twice as likely as men to die after a heart attack. See also: The “big disconnect” in women’s heart health

Myth:  Only older women have heart disease:

♥ Fact:   Heart disease threatens all women, even those as young as 30-40. For example, the rate of sudden cardiac death of women in their 30s and 40s is increasing much faster than in men their same age, rising 30% in the last decade. 

A majority of women aged 25-35, a key audience to learn and practice heart disease prevention, believe that cancer – especially breast cancer is their greatest health risk.  We know that heart disease is 20-30 years in the making, so young women need to be aware of risk and prevention, especially if they are smokers who take birth control pills, for example (a combination that puts young women at particularly high risk for future heart disease).

We now know, too, that pregnancy complications (like pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, pre-term delivery or giving birth to a full-term but low-birth-weight baby, among others) are strongly linked to future heart attack.  As women approach menopause, our risks of heart disease increase alarmingly compared to men’s risks.

Myth:   Most doctors know about women’s risk of heart disease:

♥ Fact:  When I survived a misdiagnosed heart attack in 2008, an American Heart Association study showed that only 8% of family physicians and 17% of cardiologists knew that at that time heart disease killed more women than men. And the chances of women being misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack and sent home from the Emergency Department are far higher than for their male counterparts: research on cardiac misdiagnoses reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women heart patients like me in their 50s or younger were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed by E.R. physicians than men of the same age.(1)  The consequences of this were enormous: being sent away from the hospital doubled their chances of dying.

Myth:   Women are good communicators, so they know how to talk to their doctors about heart disease:

♥ Fact:   A survey of women with heart disease showed that only 35% initially told their physicians about their early heart-related symptoms, and worse, only 8% of physicians who received this information had correctly recognized the health problem as potentially heart-related.  Only 23% of women surveyed asked their physician questions about heart disease even when they were initially diagnosed. And women are far less likely than men are to seek immediate medical help when experiencing cardiac symptoms.  See also: Six rules for navigating your next doctor’s appointment


Myth:    Women and men with heart disease get the same care:

♥ Fact:  Far too often, women fighting heart disease are not accurately diagnosed and do NOT receive the care they need when they need it. A study published in the journal Heart showed that female heart patients were less likely than men to receive medications like beta blockers, statins or ACE inhibitors – which are crucial to prevent further heart problems.  Women are also less likely than men to receive implanted defibrillator devices to control irregular heartbeats – or even aspirin! – following a cardiac event.  In January 2016, the American Heart Association issued its first ever (in its 92-year history!) scientific statement on women and heart attacks, reporting that women are under-diagnosed – and then under-treated even when appropriately diagnosed – compared to our  male counterparts. More details at: Finally! An Official Scientific Statement on Heart Attacks in Women

But the most shocking evidence so far of a gender gap in cardiology was likely a large study published in the journal Women’s Health Issues that found ambulances transporting heart patients to the Emergency Department after patients had called 911 for help were significantly less likely to have flashing lights and sirens turned on if a woman was being transported compared to a man.


Myth:   If heart disease isn’t in your family, it really isn’t a problem for you:

♥ Fact:  A family history of heart disease does increase risk of developing the disease if your father/brother had a cardiac event before the age of 55, or if your mother/sister had one before age 65. But many women without any family history have heart attacks or heart problems.  Risk factors include:

high blood pressure

pregnancy complications

a history of depression

high LDL cholesterol / low HDL cholesterol




physical inactivity


a traumatic childhood (ACE: Adverse Childhood Experiences)


Myth:  You can’t do anything to stop heart disease:

♥ Fact:   There’s actually quite a bit that you can do!  You can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease if you get the information you need, know the questions to ask your physician, and commit to making heart-smart changes to your lifestyle. Experts estimate that up to 80% of heart disease is preventable.  See also: What prevents heart disease “better than any drug?

.Sources:  Heart and Stroke Foundation, American Heart Association, WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, Mayo Clinic


Do you need a patient-friendly glossary to translate confusing cardiology phrases, jargon and terminology?


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:  I wrote much more about these and other topics in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). You can ask for this book at your local library, favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon.  If you order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN), you will save 30% off the list price.

1. Pope JH, Aufderheide TP, Ruthazer R, et al. Missed diagnoses of acute cardiac ischemia in the emergency department. N Engl J Med. 2000;342:1163-1170.


Find more Heart Sisters blog posts about women’s cardiac symptoms

This page was last updated on February 1, 2023.