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Heart disease is the number one leading cause of death among men and women, but not all heart diseases are created equal.

One condition known as coronary microvascular disease (MVD, or small vessel disease), seems to target women — in particular, younger women. Experts believe that the disease may affect up to 3 million women in the United States.

Health Factors That Put Women at Higher Risk

You may be familiar with coronary artery disease, which occurs when plaque builds up in the large arteries of the heart, blocking blood flow. The buildup prevents blood from reaching the heart.

In coronary MVD, the tiny arteries that branch off from the larger coronary arteries are typically clear; however, their inner walls are damaged, which can also lead to decreased blood flow and spasms.

There is a tendency for women to develop coronary MVD more often than men — for various reasons ranging from low estrogen levels to poor health. Women who fall into these categories are at higher risk for coronary MVD:

  • A family history of heart muscle disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking

Knowing the Signs

A common sign of coronary MVD is chest pain that lasts longer than 10 minutes. Other signs include:

  • Fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Shortness of breath

Unlike other heart diseases where symptoms occur during physical activity, such as walking upstairs or jogging, most coronary MVD symptoms happen during routine daily activities, such as running errands, gardening or cleaning.

Diagnosing and Treating Coronary MVD

The challenge with coronary MVD is knowing whether you have it or not. Unlike other heart diseases, there are no standardized tests to detect coronary MVD. Most cardiovascular tests look for blockages in the large coronary arteries, possibly missing abnormalities present in the tinier arteries of the heart where coronary MVD occurs. Doctors can diagnose it based on medical history, physical exam and other tests, such as blood and stress tests.

For those diagnosed with coronary MVD, treatment focuses on pain relief and improvement. You may be prescribed cholesterol medicines to improve cholesterol levels, prevent blood clots or lower blood pressure.

If left untreated, coronary MVD, like other heart diseases, can increase your risk for heart attack or stroke. So if you notice any symptoms, it is important to see a doctor so that proper assessment and treatment can be given.

Along with seeking medical care, adopting a healthy lifestyle is key to helping reduce your risk for heart disease in general. Limiting alcohol intake, reducing stress, not smoking, getting daily exercise and eating healthy foods are just some ways to reduce your risk of heart diseases and live a healthier life overall.

Dr. Behzad Taghizadeh is a board-certified cardiovascular disease specialist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

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