You may think of heart disease as a man’s disease, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help prevent heart disease. And the steps you take to protect your heart will also make you feel good and give you more energy. That’s a “win-win” for you and your heart.

Women’s Hearts, Men’s Hearts

There are several important gender differences in heart disease. While many of the risk factors are the same for men and women, women have some risk factors that men don’t have. And time of onset, diagnosis, symptoms and treatment can be different for men and women, too.

Women’s and men’s hearts are different physically. Women’s hearts are usually smaller, have thinner chamber walls and function differently when reacting to stress.

Some risk factors women have that men don’t include health problems like endometriosis and polycystic ovary disease that increase the risk of heart disease.

Another difference between the genders is later onset for women. Before menopause, estrogen helps protect women’s hearts, so females develop heart disease about 10 years later than males.

Heart disease often occurs for both men and women when large arteries near the heart become clogged. But in some women, the disease occurs in the tiniest arteries, which can make it harder to diagnose. This condition might be partially caused by the drop in estrogen levels after menopause.

A problem called “broken heart syndrome” mainly affects women, too. It occurs when extreme emotional stress causes the heart muscle to fail briefly. The symptoms are like those of congestive heart failure.

Symptoms of both heart disease and heart attacks can also be different in women and men. For example, women are less likely than men to have chest pain during a heart attack. And some women have no obvious heart attack symptoms. That means women and emergency room doctors should be more alert for other signs of a heart attack.

Women are more likely than men to not get the proper medicines after a heart attack. And they are more likely to have another heart attack within the next year.

So what can you do to protect yourself?

Protect Your Heart

The first step in protecting women’s hearts is to be aware of the risks and symptoms that are specific to women in addition to those that both men and women face.

There are also lifestyle choices and changes you can make to reduce your risk. By controlling risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity, women and men can help keep their heart healthy.

Watch your blood pressure when taking some medicines. Some women who take birth control pills have an increase in blood pressure. To lower your risk for heart attack or stroke, your health provider should perform a screening for high blood pressure before you take the pill. In addition, some women’s blood pressure may rise when they take hormones. All women who take birth control pills or other hormones should have their blood pressure checked regularly.

Get regular exercise. Exercise strengthens your heart and helps you manage your cholesterol, blood pressure and weight. Yet two-thirds of women don’t get regular physical activity.

It’s important to try for at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, bicycling or dancing. You should also try to get in two or more days of muscle-strengthening activities per week.

If you’re looking to lose weight, you’ll need to do more. Aim for 60 to 90 minutes of aerobic activity a day. The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women website has ideas and inspiration to help you get going.

Choose healthy foods. What you eat affects your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The good news is that the small changes you start making today will add up over time.

Try these choices:

  • Build your diet around vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
  • Enjoy fish at least twice a week. Limit fatty meats, butter and cheese, which are high in saturated fat.
  • Watch out for added sugar, sodium and trans fat (found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil). That means reading food labels and limiting packaged and processed foods.
  • Women who drink alcohol should have no more than one drink a day. Too much alcohol raises blood pressure.

If you smoke, quit. Smoking damages blood vessels and increases heart attack risk. And tobacco use is a leading cause of disease and disability. Smoking is the most avoidable cause of disease and death. If you need help to quit smoking, ask your health care provider about medication and consider using resources such as smoking cessation hotlines and support groups.

Free support is available at smokefree.gov/talk-to-an-expert. You can find a list of helpful resources in the American Cancer Society’s guide on How to Quit Smoking and Smokeless Tobacco.

Check your family history. Find out if anyone in your family has had heart disease or any of the risk factors for heart disease. You can use the Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait tool to organize your family health history.

Increased awareness and these lifestyle tips can help you and your doctor work together to prevent heart disease and heart attacks.

health_care_doctorGet your screenings.

If you haven’t had regular preventive care screenings with your doctor, start today. As a Blue Cross and Blue Shield member, your preventive screenings, including those related to heart health like blood pressure and cholesterol checks, are covered at 100 percent as part of your benefits.*