Heart Disease and Heart Attacks – What Women Need to Know
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Are women at risk?
Women are at risk for heart disease and heart attacks, just like men. In fact:
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.
- Heart disease and stroke kills more than seven times as many Canadian women as breast cancer.
- Heart diseases that affect women more than men include:
- Coronary microvascular disease (MVD) – a problem that affects the heart’s tiny arteries
- Broken heart syndrome – extreme emotional stress leading to severe but often short-term heart muscle failure.
Women develop heart problems later in life than men — typically 7 or 8 years later. However, by about age 65, a woman’s risk is almost the same as a man’s. Also, the rates of heart attack over the last 20 years have been increasing for women 35 to 54 years of age. It makes sense for women to pay attention to their heart health.
What are the symptoms of a heart attack in women?
Like in men, the most common heart attack symptom for women is pain or discomfort in the chest. However, women can also have a heart attack without having any chest pain. Some of the other symptoms women might experience include:
- Feeling out of breath
- Pain that runs along the neck, jaw, back or stomach
- Nausea, vomiting or indigestion
- Unexplained sweating
- Sudden or overwhelming fatigue
What do I need to know about heart disease and heart attacks?
Women are less likely to survive heart attacks than men. No one knows why. It may be that women don’t seek or receive treatment as soon as men, or that they don’t recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, which can be different from the symptoms that men experience. It may be because women’s smaller hearts and blood vessels are more easily damaged.
Healthcare providers are working on finding answers to these questions. Clearly, it makes sense to prevent heart problems before they start.
What can I do to protect myself from heart disease?
For both men and women, the biggest factors that contribute to heart disease are
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- family history
Take a moment to consider your lifestyle, family history and your general health. With this information, you and your family healthcare provider can assess your risk and make a plan to avoid potential problems. Although you can’t do much about your family history or your age, you can make lifestyle changes to avoid many of the other risk factors (see below).
Don’t smoke. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease in women. Female smokers under the age of 50 have a higher risk of having a heart attack than non-smoking women. Women who smoke and use birth control pills increase their risk even more. Different products can help you quit smoking. You may want to try using nicotine skin patches or nicotine gum; these types of medicines are available over the counter. There are also prescription medicines available that can help you stop smoking. Contact your healthcare provider about the best way for you to quit smoking. Second hand smoke is also bad for your heart and lungs. If you live with someone who smokes, encourage them to quit.
Control your blood pressure. Treating high blood pressure can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. A healthy diet, losing weight and exercising regularly are all ways to help control high blood pressure. Reducing how much salt you consume can also help. If these steps don’t lower your blood pressure, your healthcare provider may recommend medicine for you to take.
Control your cholesterol level. If you don’t know your level, ask your healthcare provider to check it. Screening is recommended for women 50 years of age and older and/or postmenopausal, or at any age with any other risk factors for heart disease. Healthy diet is a key part of lowering high cholesterol levels. However, some people may need to take medicine in addition to improving their diet and exercise.
Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts strain on your heart and arteries. Exercise and a low-fat diet can help you lose weight. Being overweight means you have a higher risk for many other health problems, especially diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. If you’re overweight, contact your healthcare provider about a safe and effective way to lose weight.
Exercise regularly. Remember, your heart is a muscle. It needs regular exercise to stay in shape. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, jogging or cycling, gives your heart the best workout. You can also use fitness equipment like exercise bicycles, treadmills and ski machines when exercising indoors. Finding an exercise partner may make it easier and safer for you to exercise regularly. To achieve health benefits, adults aged 18-64 years should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Contact your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program.
Eat a low-fat diet. Information is available to help you make healthy choices. For example, food labels list nutrition information, including fat calories, many cookbooks have heart-healthy recipes, and some restaurants serve low-fat menu items.
Take care of your diabetes. If you have diabetes, regular exercise, weight control, a low-fat diet and regular healthcare provider visits are important. If you need to take medicine for diabetes, be sure to take it exactly as your healthcare provider tells you to. Diabetes increases the risk for heart disease significantly more in women than men.
Be aware of chest pain. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider immediately if you suffer from pain in your chest, shoulder, neck or jaw. Also notify your healthcare provider if you experience shortness of breath or nausea that comes on quickly. If you are having a heart attack, the faster you can get to the hospital, the less damage will happen to your heart. Every second counts.
Know your family history. Having a father or brother with heart disease before age 55, or a mother or sister with heart disease before age 65, are factors that contribute to heart disease. Inform your healthcare provider about your family history.
Will medicine lower my risk of heart disease and heart attacks?
Cholesterol-lowering medicines lower the risk of heart attacks in men. However, there is not enough evidence to show that these medicines work as well in women who have never had a heart attack. If you have already had a heart attack, cholesterol-lowering medicines can lower your risk of another attack.
Taking an aspirin every day may lower your risk of problems if you have coronary artery disease, a heart attack or angina. Angina is chest pain caused by a sudden decrease in the blood supply to the heart. Aspirin makes your blood thinner, so it is less likely to make a blood clot. However, aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and other problems.
Contact your healthcare provider about your risk factors for heart disease and whether you should consider taking aspirin.
Medicines called statins, beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors may also help if you have heart problems. Ask your healthcare provider if any of these medicines are right for you.
Can estrogen replacement therapy reduce my risk for heart disease?
No. Estrogen replacement therapy, also called hormone replacement therapy (HRT), was prescribed by healthcare providers because they hoped it could help guard against certain diseases as well as treat the symptoms of menopause. It was once thought that HRT could help protect against heart disease. For some women, taking hormones can increase their chances of having a heart attack. It’s important to take the lowest dose that helps you for the shortest time needed. Contact your healthcare provider about whether you should stop.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Nova Scotia Toll free 1-800-423-4432
Prince Edward Island: (902) 892-7441
Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation Website at: