Worldwide 8.6 million women die of heart disease and stroke each year, according to figures from the World Heart Federation – that’s more than the number of women who die from malaria, all cancers, TB and HIV/AIDS combined.
Women and heart disease
Heart disease is the single biggest killer amongst both sexes and yet heart attacks are still perceived as something that only happens to stressed-out, overweight, middle-aged men.
According to the University of London, women up to the age of around 45 are believed to be protected against heart disease by the female hormone oestrogen. However, this effect is believed to wear off around the time of the menopause.
Lack of awareness
Part of the problem is lack of awareness of the risks and symptoms of heart disease in women.
GP with an interest in cardiovascular health, Dr Martin Bell, explains. “Because women think that only men tend to suffer with heart attacks, they often don’t think of it as a possibility when they get symptoms of chest pain.
“They also tend to wait before calling 999 if they have symptoms indicating a heart attack, such as central chest pain accompanied with sweating, nausea or vomiting or sudden breathlessness.”
A recent US study of one million heart attack sufferers over a 12 year period found only 30 per cent of women experienced chest pain during a heart attack, compared with 42.7 per cent of men.
Symptoms in women
The World Heart Federation (WHF) outlines the following symptoms for heart attacks in women:
- Chest discomfort, including a feeling of squeezing, discomfort or pain
in the centre of the chest, between the breasts or behind the
- Discomfort and/or pain spreading to other areas of the upper body such as one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath, unexplained weakness or fatigue, anxiety or unusual
nervousness, indigestion or gas-like pain, breaking out in a cold
sweat, nausea, light headedness and collapse are signs which one out of
four women having a heart attack experience but do not recognise. These
symptoms may occur with or without chest discomfort.
Dr Bell says: “Women tend to be older when they get symptoms of heart
disease and they sometimes don’t get such severe symptoms such as severe
crushing chest pain. They are more likely than men to have milder chest
pain or symptoms which could be confused with indigestion, tiredness or
Know your risk factors
The WHF say there are six main risk factors for heart disease in women. These include: smoking or exposure to tobacco, obesity or being overweight, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and diabetes.
You can find out more about how you can lower your risk factor, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight, and keep a check on other lifestyle factors at our heart centre.
How to protect yourself
“Ways of reducing the risk of strokes and heart attacks in women are identical to those of men and include: not smoking, regular blood pressure measurement and treatment of high blood pressure, regular exercise, a diet low in fats and avoiding obesity with its inherent risk of the development of type 2 diabetes,” advises Dr Bell.
- Know your numbers: The WHF emphasises the importance of knowing your numbers – including blood pressure, blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Other important indicators include your body mass index.
- Eat healthily: The WHF also recommends eating a diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, a variety of whole grain products, lean meat, fish, peas, beans, lentils and foods low in saturated fats. Be wary of processed foods, which often contain high levels of salt.
To provide additional inspiration, our nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker has developed two recipes that have been specifically designed to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Moroccan chicken with quinoa salad contains ingredients that may help reduce cholesterol and sardines with chickpeas and tomatoes shows how saturated fats can be replaced with healthier unsaturated fats.
- Take regular exercise: Just 30 minutes a day of physical activity can reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
- Watch your weight: Being overweight increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes − a risk factor for heart disease.
- Don’t smoke: If you give up smoking, your risk of developing cardiovascular disease will halve within a year and return to a normal level over time.
Heart disease in children
Cardiovascular disease in children is thankfully rare – but childhood obesity is on the increase and this is putting more young people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Dr Bell says: “The UK is already seeing an increase in the numbers of children and adolescents with type 2 diabetes as a result of the greater number of obese children, because type 2 diabetes is closely linked with being overweight.
“Once you have diabetes, you are at higher risk of heart disease and blood vessel disease leading to strokes and heart attacks.
“It is essential that children keep to a normal weight, do regular exercise, never smoke and eat healthy low fat food. Otherwise we will see an epidemic of heart disease and strokes in younger and younger adults, both men and women.”
Visit our heart centre and read up on ways to look after your heart.
British Heart Foundation - www.bhf-corrie.org.uk
World Heart Federation - www.world-heart-federation.org/what-we-do/awareness/go-red-for-women
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