Heart disease kills more than two times as many Australian women than breast cancer.
Moreover, about 40% of heart attacks in women are fatal, and many occur without prior warning. Sadly, the majority of women don’t realise it’s one of their leading causes of death.
Why is heart disease less recognised in women?
- Women tend to develop symptoms of heart disease at a much later stage of the illness than men
- Their symptoms are often vaguer or ‘non-specific’
- Some diagnostic tests for heart disease are less accurate in women than in men
- Women are less likely to seek help quickly
- Some health professionals are less likely to check
Women’s symptoms of a heart attack
Did you know that women can experience different symptoms of a heart attack to men and are often less likely to experience chest pain type symptoms?
If you aren’t feeling normal or are experiencing any of the symptoms above, head to your local emergency room or call 000. It is better to take care of yourself and prevent damage to your heart, in the event you are having a heart attack.
When does heart disease occur for women?
It is important to note that heart disease can occur at any age however, around the time when women experience menopause the risk increases significantly. It is thought that women’s natural oestrogen helps protect them from heart disease by supporting the flexibility of the blood vessels and arteries enabling them to adjust to support blood flow. Once there is a drop in these oestrogen levels as well as the other changes occurring around menopause, this causes a significant increase in the risk of heart disease for women. To learn more about the menopause and women’s heart health, watch our webinar with Cardiologist Dr Monique Watts and author of Queen Menopause, Alison Daddo here
For earlier identification of cardiovascular disease and more timely and appropriate medical intervention it is advised for women over 45* to have a heart health check and, if they have had children, discuss their obstetric history with their current GP. This enables proactive prevention to be taken to reduce risk. To learn more about risk factors for heart disease and how to reduce them click here.
*Over 35 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
How can women reduce their risk?
Women need to understand that they are at risk from hypertension and diabetes, and that these disorders are largely preventable.
- Stick to an active lifestyle throughout life – preferably beginning in the pre-menopausal years with regular exercise (at least 30 minutes, 3–5 times a week)
- Follow a low-fat diet
- Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
- Maintain a healthy body weight
Prevention involves early recognition of particular cardiovascular risk factors as they occur in each individual and identification of these can be helped with a heart health check. For factors that can not be controlled by lifestyle changes they may need to be managed with medication.
Smoking is even more harmful in women than in men. For example, it creates more risk of clotting-related diseases, such as stroke and heart attack, in young women compared with men. The risk is increased if smoking women are also using a birth control pill.
Hypertension: the silent killer
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the most important risk factor for both stroke and heart failure.
In 2001, more than half of Australian women aged over 55 had hypertension: a disturbing fact, because many are unaware they have the condition. It is called ‘the silent killer’ because it does not cause symptoms.
Once diagnosed, hypertension can usually be well controlled with appropriate medication. If it is controlled, the risk of developing heart failure or stroke is greatly reduced.
To learn more about risk factors click here.
The risk of developing diabetes is increased greatly by physical inactivity and obesity. In 2001 about 20% of Australian women were classified as obese, and many more as overweight. Many Australian women with diabetes remain undiagnosed. Most have no symptoms, because diabetes is usually present for many years before symptoms develop.
Diabetes increases the risk of heart attack by 3-7 times in women, compared with 2-3 times in men.
Diabetics have more widespread atherosclerosis than others, and are often less suitable for stenting or surgery. Regular exercise and weight control, beginning at an early age, can usually prevent diabetes.
Early recognition of diabetes (involving a blood glucose test) allows appropriate medical intervention. This can greatly reduce the risks linked to the disease.