Center for Heart & Vascular Health

Women and Heart Disease

Half of all women die from cardiovascular disease.

“Most women don’t realize that since 1984, more females than males have died of heart disease,” says Kathleen W. McNicholas, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at Christiana Care. “And African-American women have a higher mortality rate than others.”

Dr. McNicholas gives frequent talks in the community about women and heart disease. When she urges people to increase their knowledge about one of the leading causes of death for women, she speaks with the authority of both a doctor and a patient. When she was in her mid-50s, Dr. McNicholas underwent open-heart surgery herself at Christiana Hospital. But even she was not quick to diagnose heart disease in herself. She coughed all night, felt some vague chest pain and generally felt bad, as if she’d aged rapidly.

“Two thirds of women and one third of doctors don’t recognize the symptoms of heart attack in females,” she warns. “These symptoms are often more subtle than the classic ‘elephant sitting on your chest.’ The universal sign of a heart attack—clutching your chest—often doesn’t apply to women.”

Instead, women having heart attacks often experience one or more of these symptoms:

  • Breathlessness.
  • Flu-like symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, weakness or dizziness.
  • Pain in the upper back, shoulders, neck or jaw.
  • Anxiety.

McNicholas’ advice to women: “Don’t take chances. Get familiar with the symptoms of heart disease in women and recognize them as standard but different. And understand that your own perception of heart disease may be your biggest risk factor.”

If you suspect that you could be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Don’t take chances. Remember that the care you want to give to others depends first on the care that you give yourself.

At the forefront in combating heart disease among women

Because women experience the symptoms of heart disease differently from men, and because decades of public misperception have led many people to overlook the warning signs of heart disease in women, Christiana Care is working hard to raise awareness of this significant public-health issue. Through community education and lectures, and through targeted programs that are teaching women to recognize the risk factors for heart disease in themselves and others, we hope to reduce the incidence of heart disease among women in our community.

Our women’s heart-health programs include:

Christiana Care Center for Heart & Vascular Health
Christiana Hospital
4755 Ogletown-Stanton Road, Newark, DE 19718 directions