Women Veterans and Heart Health

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A compelling mission for female veterans: Focus on heart health.

Focusing on heart health is important for every woman — but especially for female military veterans, who may have unique risk factors for heart disease.

“It’s common for women to be caregivers for others and neglect to think about themselves,” said Dr. Sally Haskell, deputy chief officer for clinical operations and director of comprehensive women’s health for the Veterans Health Administration. “This is true for all women, but we especially want to reach out to women veterans to remind them to take care of their own health.”

Women are the fastest growing group of veterans and their numbers are expected to increase over the next 25 years. The Department of Veterans Affairs and American Heart Association are seeking to understand female veterans’ risks of heart disease — the No. 1 killer of all women — and to encourage them to lead healthier lives. 

“Female veterans are trained to be stoic in the military,” Haskell said. “That mindset may be part of the reason why some put off seeing a doctor or delay taking care of their health.”
It’s vital for women to realize the importance of getting preventive care and paying attention to their bodies, she said. “We want to be especially certain that female veterans get the care they deserve.”

Why are female veterans at risk for heart disease?

Major risk factors for heart disease and stroke include diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, lack of physical activity, obesity and family history.

Veterans may have higher rates of some of these traditional risk factors such as smoking and obesity.

But female veterans face risks of heart disease and stroke for additional reasons: 

  • Diversity – As a group, female veterans are more racially and ethnically diverse than civilian women or male veterans, they often suffer more stress due to many factors.
  • Mental Health – Mental health issues that may result from the stresses of military service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, affect the heart health of female veterans, Haskell said.
  • Missed Symptoms – For women, the signs of heart problems are often subtler, so health care professionals may miss them. Women are also more likely to face gender disparities in their care, such as not receiving the same diagnostic tests as men.
  • Unhealthy Habits – Another problem, Haskell said, is that veterans can “rebound” into unhealthy habits after leaving the military — contributing to rapid development of cardiovascular risk factors.

How can female veterans help prevent heart disease?

Female veterans can take several steps to improve their heart health, including getting preventive care and having basics such as blood pressure, weight and cholesterol checked.

Those basics are among seven key risk factors targeted by the AHA’s Life’s Essential 8, which outlines lifestyle changes that can help anyone achieve ideal heart health: 

  1. Eat better
  2. Get active
  3. Quit smoking
  4. Get healthy sleep
  5. Lose weight
  6. Control cholesterol
  7. Reduce blood sugar
  8. Manage blood pressure

Specialized Support for Women Veterans

Female veterans should seek health care professionals who understand how their military experience can have lifelong effects on their health, Haskell said.

At each VA medical center, a women’s veterans program manager (advocate) assists female patients, she said. The VA also offers mental health screenings at primary care visits so veterans can get help quickly. Studies have linked mental illnesses with poorer heart health.

VA focuses on ensuring female veterans have the services they need for both their physical and mental health.

The VA also offers education services on topics such as nutrition and diabetes. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual telehealth visits have increased, Haskell said.

Warning signs

Heart and stroke symptoms may differ in women:

  • Chest pain is the most common sign of heart attack in both women and men.
    But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
  • Stroke signs in men and women are the same.
    These include face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty and problems with vision, balance and coordination. But women can have other, less obvious signs: general weakness, disorientation, confusion, memory problems, fatigue, nausea or vomiting.

“The best advice is for women to pay attention to their bodies and any symptoms they are having,” Haskell said. “If something doesn’t seem right, don’t hesitate to get medical care.”

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Written by American Heart Association editorial staff and reviewed by science and medicine advisors.
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