What Is the No. 1 Killer of Women?

What Is the No. 1 Killer of Women?
Written by Ron Martin
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5 minutes

It’s time for an important pop quiz. The following are among the leading causes of death for American women. 
Which one do you think kills the most women in the U.S. every year?

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease
  2. Heart Disease
  3. Stroke
  4. Breast Cancer

You might find it surprising, but Heart disease is the biggest killer of women in America each year. In fact, with nearly 1 in 5 women dying of heart disease, all types of cancers combined do not kill as many women every year as heart disease. If this surprises you, there’s a good reason. For too many years, studies on heart disease focused on men – so much so that heart disease was considered a “man’s disease.”

Other subtle clues reinforce this idea, including the prevalence of pink ribbons meant to raise awareness about breast cancer. The more pink ribbons we see, and the fewer red ribbons we see, the more our attention and perception can be skewed about the most prevalent health threats facing women. Thinking that heart disease is a “man’s disease” or that cardiovascular disease is less of a concern than other diseases afflicting women is a dangerous myth.

Leading Causes of Death Among American Women

Here is some hard data about the percentage of American women killed by the top health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1:

  • Heart Disease – 21.8 percent. Also known as “cardiovascular disease,” heart disease includes a range of issues, most of which are related to plaque buildup in arteries. 
  • Cancer – 20.5 percent. While breast cancer receives plenty of publicity, it is significantly less likely to lead to death than heart disease. In fact, breast cancer ranks second to lung cancer in female cancer deaths. 
  • Stroke - 6.2 percent. While stroke is considered different than heart disease, it is closely related in terms of how it develops and how it affects an individual.
  • Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases – 6.1 percent. The most common chronic lower respiratory disease is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

What are the symptoms of Heart Disease in Women?

Although roughly the same number of women as men die from heart disease every year, there is still a need to help women understand how symptoms of heart disease show up in women. Because symptoms of heart disease can differ between the genders, it is important to understand exactly how heart disease shows up for women. While both genders may experience tightness in the chest, women are far likelier to experience nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Some researchers believe this has distracted some women from the true nature of their illness.

Other Important Truths Relating to Heart Disease in American Women

Often overlooked or downplayed in the literature and media surrounding women and heart disease are these:

Heart disease affects a higher rate of Black women than White, Hispanic, and Asian women. That breakdown is:5

  • Black: 6.5 percent
  • Hispanic: 6.0 percent
  • White: 6.1 percent
  • Asian: 3.2 percent 

How to Reduce Your Risk

If the above sounds pretty somber, it is. But there is a detail that should cause you to, well, take heart. To drive the point home, here’s another quiz. What is the best way to fight against heart disease? Rank your choices:

  1. Coronary bypass
  2. Exercise and nutrition
  3. Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD)
  4. Statin medication

Hopefully, the answer to this question is obvious. While statin medication, bypass surgeries, and ICDs are all medical treatments to deal with a diagnosis of heart disease or a life-threatening event related to heart disease, the good news is that getting enough exercise and eating a healthy, nutritious diet may help reduce the risk of heart disease for American women. In fact, of the significant women’s health risks, risk of heart disease is among the most modifiable, since dietary and lifestyle factors can significantly reduce the risk. While there is also a strong genetic component to heart disease, this is only one factor influencing its development. Other factors are equally, if not more important for most people, including lifestyle choices, such as smoking, as well as poor diet, lack of exercise, and too much stress.

As defined by the CDC, there are several risk factors in developing heart disease, including: obesity/being overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. What jumps out at us when we read a list like this is how reducing the risk  of heart disease is mostly about lifestyle – and how it’s never too early or too late to start the process of making healthy changes in your life. 

What Lifestyle Changes Help with Heart Health?

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re considering ways to change your lifestyle to help support and promote heart health. If you’re a smoker, maybe you’re trying to quit or have successfully quit. If you’re overweight, you’re probably (and hopefully!) substituting vegetables for fries. You’re trying to get aerobic exercise three times a week. Some of these changes will be the toughest you ever have to make, and there are plenty of programs, literature, and support groups to help.  Also, don’t forget to reach out to your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider for guidance.  

Nothing replaces making the lifestyle changes that are known to promote cardiovascular health, no matter how challenging they might be. Another strategy to help support your heart isn’t  difficult to do, which is adding a multi-vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplements to your daily routine. Nutritional supplements, mostly in the form of oral tablets, capsules or softgels, are intended to provide the body nutrients it may not otherwise get in sufficient quantities. More than half of Americans take a supplement—usually a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement. Among the key heart healthy supplements are Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil, flaxseed oil) and Coenzyme Q10, also known as CoQ10, or Ubiquinol. Both Omega-3 and Ubiquinol have been shown to support heart health. More in-depth information on how Ubiquinol promotes heart health can be found in our Heart Health e-book

Written by:

Ron Martin

Vice President of the Nutrients Division

Ron Martin is the Vice President of the Nutrients Division at Kaneka North America. Ron’s dedication to lifelong learning and belief that “one cannot know too much” inspired a decades-long career centered around educating the public about health.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leading causes of death in females. United States, 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/Women/lcod/2009/index.htm
  2. Roger VL, Go AS, Lloyd-Jones DM, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Borden WB, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2012 update: a report from the American Heart AssociationCirculation. 2012;125(1):e2–220.

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