In Canada, heart disease is the second leading cause of death. Amongst women, it is the number one cause of death, claiming nearly 31,000 lives per year, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Interestingly, women are more susceptible to heart disease than men and have at least one risk factor related to heart disease. Most are not even aware they are at risk. Understanding the symptoms unique to women can help encourage a healthier lifestyle.
While many women tend to be protected from heart disease prior to menopause due to the protective effect of estrogen, pregnant women and pre-menopausal women with diabetes are at risk of heart disease. Diabetes cancels out the protective effects of estrogen. Once a woman hits menopause, her risk of heart disease increases.
Women taking estrogen as part of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) also have an increased risk of stroke and heart attack. It is advisable that women on HRT discuss with a healthcare professional what their options are.
The 2018 Heart Report revealed some interesting and shocking facts:
- Women are five times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer;
- Early signs of an imminent heart attack were missed in approximately 78% of women, according to a past study; and
- Women are more likely than men to die or have a second heart attack within the first six months of experiencing a cardiac event.
Risk Factors in Women
Women have unique risk factors that increase their chances of developing heart disease. These include:
- Menopause – low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels (coronary microvascular disease).
- Diabetes – 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.
- Stress and depression – can have dire health consequences. Often, depressed women will find it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle, therefore, it is important to seek help to address stress and depression.
- Smoking – aside from the numerous other health complications connected to smoking, women who smoke increase their chances of developing heart disease, even more so than men.
- 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
Women and men will experience different health issues and for different reasons. According to The Heart and Stroke Foundation, here are some key highlights:
- 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 are not as likely to be prescribed blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering medication.
- Pregnancy, menopause and hormones all affect a woman’s heart.
- Statistically, women are half as likely to participate in cardiac rehabilitation programs after a heart attack.
- Indigenous women experience up to 53% higher death rates due to heart disease compared to non-Indigenous women.
- 90% of SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) cases are women.
- Research supports that women of South Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean descent have an increased risk of heart disease.
Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women
Below are the major symptoms to watch out for:
- Pain in the arms, back and/or neck;
- Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath;
- Light-headedness and/or dizziness; and
- Abnormal fatigue.
If any of these symptoms are present, it is highly advised that one seek medical advice as soon as possible. These could be signs of heart disease or that a heart attack is imminent.
Knowing that women are more susceptible to heart disease, it is important to make healthy life choices now. Analyze what changes can be made. Can you quit smoki
ng? Can you adopt a healthier diet? Are you exercising enough?
For ideas on heart healthy foods, read our blog 14 Foods to Add to Your Heart Healthy Grocery List. On the flip side, check out our blog on Foods to Avoid, especially after a heart disease diagnosis.