The biggest killer of women: Are you at risk?

Did you know that 50 women will lose their lives to a partially preventable disease this week? Want to have a guess what that is? It’s probably not what you’d think.

Although we have high rates of cancers in New Zealand, heart disease is the single greatest killer of women. We are five times more likely to die from heart disease than we are from breast cancer.

These startling facts have been top of mind for me recently, as I spoke at the weekend to a group of women as part of an event for the Heart Foundation’s Go Red for Women campaign. The campaign aims to educate women that heart disease is not just a man’s disease, and also to help us understand the symptoms of heart disease and heart attack.

Because another startling fact is that the symptoms of heart attacks in women are often quite different from those in men, and not what we might expect. As a result, women sometimes overlook the fact that they’re having a heart attack.

Most people think a heart attack feels like crushing chest pain. While this is certainly one symptom, women can experience a range of other symptoms, including a feeling of indigestion, back and jaw discomfort and nausea, along with shortness of breath, light-headedness and fainting. These symptoms can occur with or without chest discomfort. The Heart Foundation says this may be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main coronary arteries, but also in the tiny coronary artery blood vessels that branch off from the main ones. This is called microvascular coronary disease.

Wellington Cardiologist Dr Kathy Ferrier says women also have poorer outcomes after heart attacks than men – possibly because we don’t recognise the symptoms and leave it until later to get checked out. The Heart Foundation says that most heart damage occurs before calling for medical help – and women tend to leave it longer before calling an ambulance when they’re having symptoms.

It’s worth noting that this is not just an older women’s issue. Kathy Ferrier says she’s seeing increasing numbers of women in their 30s and 40s presenting with heart disease, often linked with smoking, obesity and related diseases. Heart Foundation ambassador Helen Thompson-Carter was 37 when she had her heart attack, with no prior warning or pre-existing risk factors.

The message here is firstly: know the warning signs. I recommend having a look here and watching the video, which sums up nicely how a heart attack can happen to a woman (and how we can miss it).

Secondly, remember many of those 50 deaths this week could have been prevented through changes in lifestyle. Giving up smoking is a big one; if you smoke, quitting could literally be a life-saver. Keeping an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol, getting to and maintaining a healthy weight, and being physically active on most days will lower your risk. And forget the heart health benefits of a glass of wine: these are often overstated in the media and the risks understated. If you don’t drink, good for you, and if you do drink, be aware of the safe drinking guidelines of no more than one to two standard drinks a day.

Lastly, we should be looking at getting heart checks regularly, just as we have breast checks and cervical smears. To find out when you should be starting to get heart checks, have a look here.

First published: Jun 2015

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