In general, women have the same coronary heart disease risk factors that men do. But these risk factors may affect women differently.

Early on, studies detected that, before the age of 50, men have a higher short-term risk of coronary disease. Using Framingham 10-year risk scoring, a comparison of a man and a woman and their risk factors is provided below.

Coronary heart disease risk factors in women
Women who reach age 50 with few or no risk factors for heart disease
tend to live much longer lives.

In this example, the man has high total cholesterol, relatively low HDL cholesterol, and he smokes but doesn't take blood pressure medication for high blood pressure. His risk of a heart attack or death from coronary heart disease is 20 percent. In comparison, a woman with identical risk factors has only an 8 percent risk of heart attack or death from coronary heart disease.


Woman Man
Age 50 50
Total Cholesterol 240 mg/dL 240 mg/dL
HDL Cholesterol 42 mg/dL 42 mg/dL
Smoker Yes Yes
Systolic Blood Pressure 140 mm Hg 140 mm Hg
Currently on medication
to treat high blood pressure
No
No
10-Year Risk 20% 8%

Because of the disparity in short-term risk between men and women, prevention and education efforts have traditionally targeted men. But now that's changing because it's become increasingly apparent that coronary heart disease significantly affects women, too.

A study that looked at the lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease found that people who have certain risk factors at age 50 -- such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and/or overweight or obesity -- are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and to have a shorter life span.

In comparison, those who have no risk factors at age 50 are unlikely to develop cardiovascular disease and are likely to have a longer life span. Those men and women who had fewer than two risk factors at age 50 lived an average of 11 years and 8 years longer, respectively, compared with men and women who had two or more risk factors.

The key message is this: If a woman were to embrace healthy habits early on so that she had fewer risk factors when she reached age 50, she may have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a markedly longer life.

As women age, though, their risk will increase. Find out why menopause might be a major factor on the next page.

For more information on coronary heart disease, see:
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