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THE CONVERSATION

It’s time for a heart-to-heart about women’s cardiovascular health, unique risk factors and symptoms

It’s time for a heart-to-heart about women’s cardiovascular health, unique risk factors and symptoms
Women experience unique events over the course of their lifespan which may impact their cardiovascular health. Image: Maverick Life

It’s important for women to not only be aware of their risk for heart disease, but also how they can be proactive and make informed decisions regarding their heart health at all stages of life.

Cardiovascular disease — also called heart disease — is a condition affecting the heart and blood vessels, and is the leading cause of death among women worldwide. For example, a women dies of heart disease every 20 minutes in Canada.

Although cardiovascular disease is often considered a disease of men, women are more likely to die from a heart attack when compared with men. This fact often surprises women and even their healthcare providers.

Many women are not aware that heart disease is a significant health threat to them, but the reality is that five times as many women die from heart disease as breast cancer. Despite dramatic improvements in management of cardiovascular disease over time, the death rate due to heart disease is actually increasing in women, especially those under age 65.

It has become clear that women remain under-researched, under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-supported an under-aware of their cardiovascular risk.

That’s why it is critical that moving forward, we recognize that women’s hearts are unique. Additionally, there is an urgent need to start a conversation to improve awareness of women’s heart health to help save the lives of mothers, sisters, daughters, family and friends.

Women’s hearts are different

From the outside, women’s hearts may look the same as men’s, but there are important differences.

Specifically, women experience unique events throughout their lifespan which may impact their cardiovascular health. For example, an individual’s menstrual health and patterns, or conditions related to fertility, such as polycystic ovary syndrome or endometriosis, may influence her cardiovascular well-being.

Pregnancy complications, such as hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and gestational diabetes, can also play a role in cardiovascular health. Finally, menopause factors, including timing of menopause and menopause-related treatments, may also be indicators of cardiovascular health.

In addition to such risk factors that are inherent to the female experience, women are disproportionately impacted by other risk factors for heart disease. These risk factors may include conditions such as depression, chronic kidney disease and autoimmune disease.

Women need to not only be aware of how their risk for heart disease may change across the lifespan but also how they can be proactive and make informed decisions regarding their heart health at all stages of life.

Heart attack symptoms

Early heart attack symptoms are missed in up to 78 per cent of women, in part related to the fact that women may present with different symptoms than men.

Similar to men, women often present with chest pain or discomfort, though they may have additional or alternative symptoms such as jaw, neck or back pain, shortness of breath, nausea, indigestion and extreme fatigue. In fact, women are more likely to present with three or more symptoms in addition to chest pain when having a heart attack.

An awareness of the differences in heart attack symptoms may lead to improved recognition and timely care for women.

Recognizing that women can have different cardiovascular risk factors, symptoms and even types of heart disease can be scary and overwhelming. However, there is good news! It is estimated that approximately 80 per cent of cardiovascular disease is preventable.

Reducing heart risks

There are many steps that you can take to reduce your risk of heart disease. Staying active and moving every day, and even small steps to reduce sedentary time can be beneficial.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet is also important. Aim to eat a variety of healthy foods and try to limit highly processed foods and salt. How you eat also matters: listen to your body by eating when you are hungry, but stopping once you are satisfied.

Living free from commercial tobacco and vaping, reducing alcohol intake and managing stress are also key ways to reduce your risk. Finally, take your medications as prescribed and have regular check-ups with your healthcare providers. DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation. Nabilah Gulamhusein is a PhD Student in Medical Sciences at the University of Calgary. Sandi Dumanski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, University of Calgary.

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