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Research has shown heart health is the leading killer among women and men, but are there risk factors that make women more vulnerable to the disease than men?

According to Dr. Sharon L. Mulvaugh of Mayo Clinic the answer is yes.

Mulvaugh says smoking, obesity and diseases that cause inflammation can make women more susceptible to heart disease. While all three are risk factors for both men and women, there are some factors that make women more susceptible:

  • Women who smoke are twice as likely to have a heart attack as those who do not.
  • Women who are obese experience heart attacks eleven years earlier, on average, than women who are not obese.
  • Women who have conditions that cause inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, are more likely to develop heart disease. These types of diseases increase heart disease risk by at least two to three times.

There are other gender-specific factors that increase the risk for women.

Women who have high blood pressure during pregnancy, specifically preeclampsia or toxemia, have a higher tendency to develop heart disease later in life.

Second, the female hormone estrogen appears to have a protective effect on women, lowering their risk of heart disease. After menopause, that protection decreases as the level of estrogen in a woman’s body goes down, making postmenopausal women more vulnerable to heart disease. Women who have premature menopause — at age 40 or younger — and who do not receive hormone therapy are significantly more likely to develop heart disease than other women.

Fortunately, more than 80 percent of heart disease is preventable by living a heart healthy lifestyle. That lifestyle includes: eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats getting regular physical activity, being at a healthy body weight and not smoking.

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