Although we celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th and it’s almost the end of March, It got me thinking how amazing women are, but also some of the health related issues that many endure.  Although I may not be saying anything new, as a First Aid instructor, I felt like this was important. I wanted to explore heart disease in women and the lack of awareness they face in a little more depth, and hopefully shed some more light on this topic.

Did you know a woman is more likely to suffer from heart disease and twice more likely to die as compared to a men? Women do poorly from surgery and are less likely to recover from heart attacks. Did you know that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women? I bet many of you thought it was cancer. With all this information and knowledge there still is a real disconnect about the importance of heart disease. Many women would not consider cardiovascular health a top priority. Things like ovarian and breast cancer are more of a forefront, most likely due to the relationship breast and ovaries have to societies views on body image.

Risk Factors

The song “This is a Man’s World’ comes to mind as I think about heart disease. Heart disease is a male disease and so many of the signs and symptoms discussed, the treatment and focus are about how it affects men.  Many of the health risk factors that increase the risk of heart disease are only experienced by women. For example, Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and pregnancy related diseases increase her chance. That is in addition to all the similar risk factors that they share with men like high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, stress, and depression.  Many of these risks affecting the outcome of women and heart diseases are more compared to their male counterparts.  Family history and ethnicity plays a large role in women in when and how often they will be affected by heart diseases.

The fact is that women are more likely to die from heart disease because many individuals including some doctors don’t take it as seriously in women compared to men. Yet many women would say they have no knowledge about it and/or their doctors do not discuss these issues with them. There are many studies that have shown that the risk factors associated with heart disease in women out rank similar factors in compared to their male counter parts. Some of these factors are presented in women months just prior to them having their heart attack. Women tend to be more adversely affected and more impacted than men by a heart attack. They often have longer recoveries and have a higher chance of having another heart attack within 12 months after having a heart attack. Again all of these factors are due to how signs and symptoms are perceived in woman and how they are treated or in many cases not treated.

Signs & Symptoms

When thinking of signs and symptoms of a heart attack, many individuals will think of the typical chest pain and difficulty breathing. However, in women many of the unknown and typical signs include;

  • Feeling unwell, weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Indigestion
  • Shortness of breath, sweating
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Pain in the neck, back, or jaw
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Weak arms and legs

Women tend to be care givers and usually tend to care for others before themselves and may think of these symptoms as regular everyday life aches and pains. A lot of these signs happen months to a few hours before a heart attack and in many cases, no symptoms at all.

When looking at the structure of the heart, women’s hearts are smaller with thinner chambers. These differences usually require a women’s heart to pump faster, compared to men. However, despite this it does not pump more blood. During stressful situations, women’s heart beats faster to meet the demands while in a man their arteries (chambers carrying oxygen rich blood) constrict, increasing their blood pressure. Women also have smaller coronary arteries compared to men. All these differences make it difficult to perform tasks such as bypass surgery, and cases more complications. Add to the mix that women tend to be older when they have heart attacks due to  the protective effect of estrogens and it makes it just that more complicated. Again younger women can have heart attacks with the symptoms above look like more than a hard day at work.

What Can I Do

 By the time it took to read up to this point one women has just died from cardiovascular disease and stroke!  Now you cannot change your genes, your ethnicity, your age, or you family history but you do have the power to change a few things. Changing your lifestyle has a large impact in decreasing ones risk factor. Exercise, diet, reducing stress, not smoking for example can reduce your risk. Maintaining a healthy BMI can also reduce your risk.

In our society, we are expected to keep quiet and deal with things in isolation and expected not to talk about what we go through. As there have been a lot of movement in supporting women, so should our thinking of heart disease in women.  We need to start taking cardiovascular disease in women seriously, as sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, grandmothers, and wives are dying quickly and swiftly. We need to lift our voices and speak loud. Let’s not get to a place of asking ourselves why the last woman before we start to care!

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