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Heart Disease, Stroke, COPD and Women

Office on Women's Health

Heart disease is the number one killer of American women. Although it is typically viewed as a man's disease, more women actually die of heart disease each year than do men. On average, women develop heart disease later in life than do men. In addition, women are more likely to have other co-existing, chronic conditions that may mask their symptoms of heart disease than are men.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women may also differ from those in men, which can lead to a misdiagnosis of the disease in women. Women who recover from a heart attack are more likely to have a stroke or to have another heart attack than are men. In fact, 42 percent of women die within a year following a heart attack compared to 24 percent of men.

Chronic Obstructive PulminaryDisease (COPD) includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthmatic bronchitis, all of which obstruct airflow from the lungs. In 1997, COPD was the fourth leading cause of death among women, claiming the lives of 53,045. The mortality rate from this disease was 17.7 deaths per 100,000 persons in 1997. While death rates from COPD are much higher in men than in women, the rates for women have nearly doubled since 1979. The most rapid increases have occurred in women ages 75 and older.

A Stroke is usually caused by a clot that stops the flow of blood to an area of the brain. Stroke can cause paralysis, loss of speech, and poor memory. Stroke is the third leading cause of death for American women, and it kills more than twice as many women each year as breast cancer. It is the most common cause of adult disability in this country.

Women account for 43 percent (or 240,000) of the 550,000 strokes that occur each year and 61 percent of stroke deaths (97,227 of 159,791 annual deaths). Stroke occurs at a higher rate among African American and Hispanic women than among white women.

Taken together, stroke and heart disease kill nearly twice as many American women as do all types of cancer combined. More than one woman in five in this country has some form of major heart or blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease. However, in a 1997 national survey, only 8 percent of American women recognized heart disease and stroke as the leading cause of women’s deaths.