According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, heart disease is a leading cause of death of women in Canada, claiming nearly 31,000 lives per year. The unfortunate part is that many women are not even aware they are at risk of heart disease. Surprisingly, the majority of women have at least one risk factor related to heart disease, and they don’t even know it. Understanding the female-specific symptoms of heart disease can help women to make healthier lifestyle choices.
Heart disease symptoms for women
Unfortunately, women’s unique physiology poses distinct challenges in the prevention and management of heart disease. That said, women need to be aware and empowered to make healthy life choices that promote a healthy heart. Prevention and quick treatment are critical and could be the difference between life and death. Here are the top symptoms to watch out for:
- Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath
- Pain in the arms, back, neck
- Light-headedness and/or dizziness
- Abnormal fatigue
If any of these symptoms are present, seeking medical advice is strongly advised. These could be signs of heart disease or an impending heart attack.
Unique risk factors for women
Because women are unique, there are unique risk factors that increase the chances of developing heart disease.
Diabetes – research supports that women with diabetes are at higher risk of developing heart disease than men.
Pregnancy complications – women who are pregnant and have high blood pressure or diabetes are at higher risk of developing heart disease.
Smoking – aside from the slew of other health complications due to smoking, women who smoke increase their chances of developing heart disease, even more so than men.
Menopause – low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (coronary microvascular disease).
Stress and depression – having stress and depression can lead to many health consequences. Usually, depressed women will find it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle, therefore, it’s important to seek help to address stress and depression.
Lack of exercise – finding time to exercise, even if for a brief few minutes a day is important to maintaining a healthy heart. Studies indicate that women are more inactive than men.
The differences between women and men and heart disease
Men and women are not created equal. Women will experience different health issues and for different reasons. The Heart and Stroke Foundation outlines the major differences:
- When it comes to heart disease in men, the major coronary arteries are typically affected. In women, heart disease tends to show up in the smaller blood vessels of the heart. This means that symptoms in women may not fit the ‘typical textbook case’ of heart disease.
- Women who experience heart disease or a heart attack aren’t as likely to be prescribed blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering medication.
- Pregnancy, menopause and hormones all affect a women’s heart.
- Statistically, women are half as likely to participate in cardiac rehabilitation programs after a heart attack.
- Indigenous women experience up to 53 per cent higher death rates due to heart disease compared to non-Indigenous women.
- Data indicates that 90 per cent of SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) cases are women.
- Research supports that women of South Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean descent are more susceptible to heart disease.
Leading a healthy lifestyle now will decrease the chances of developing heart disease later. Determine what changes can be made to prevent heart disease such as quitting smoking, eating low fat, low sodium meals, and exercising regularly.