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Many people believe heart disease is primarily a problem for men. In reality, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. But the idea that gender affects heart disease is also correct. Studies show that men and women have different risks for heart disease based on a variety of factors including age and the amount of care they receive for early warning symptoms.
The heart is a collection of muscles that relax to allow blood to flow into the organ then contract to push blood throughout the body. The tissues of the heart, like all other tissues in the body, need a steady supply of blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to stay healthy. The most common cause of heart disease is known as coronary artery disease (CAD). This condition occurs when the blood vessels feeding the tissue of the heart become narrow or blocked. If an artery is completely blocked, part of the heart muscle does not receive food or oxygen. This tissue can be damaged or die so that it can no longer pump blood effectively. CAD starts slowly and builds over time. Many people do not realize they have CAD until heart muscle is damaged and they have a heart attack.
Basic biology seems to indicate that women should be more likely to experience serious heart disease. Women’s bodies are generally smaller than those of men, which means their hearts are smaller and the blood vessels feeding their hearts are smaller. Smaller blood vessels can more easily become blocked, and a smaller heart is more susceptible to failure if even a small portion of the muscle is damaged.
The age factor
But research has shown that young women are actually less likely to develop CAD than are men. Some researchers believe the sex hormone estrogen works to protect the hearts of women during their childbearing years from coronary artery disease. This belief is supported by the fact that women lose this apparent protection at the same approximate age they go through menopause, which is a time when estrogen production in the body drops off.
This is not to say that young women do not need to be concerned about CAD.