According to the Heart Foundation, women are almost three times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. However, less than four out of 10 women know that heart disease is their leading killer. For the last 50 years, numerous organisations and the mainstream media have depicted heart disease to be a predominantly male problem - this is not true.
Like men, women are frequently diagnosed with angina, heart attack, heart failure, abnormal heart beats and congenital heart disease (present at birth). Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection is a heart condition more common in females. It occurs when the inner layers of the coronary artery splits, resulting in reduced blood delivery to the heart muscle. Symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack and there are little known risk factors.
It is widely believed that women are more diligent at looking after their health, but in fact women aged 30-65 are less likely to have spoken to their GP about heart disease than men (23% v 31%), and less likely to have a heart health check (28% v 41%).* A lack of education regarding women’s heart attack symptoms means we generally present later to emergency departments, which reduces the likelihood of being referred to cardiac rehabilitation, prescribed the appropriate medication, making necessary lifestyle modifications, and the overall chance of survival.
Knowing the symptoms for women is vital to increase early admission and improve survival rates. It is common for women to be having a heart attack with no or little chest pain, therefore we need to be aware of other symptoms:
Pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest - this may not always be severe
Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort
Shortness of breath
Pain in one or both arms
Nausea or vomiting
Light-headedness or dizziness
While traditional risk factors such as obesity, high cholesterol and blood pressure play a role in women’s heart disease, other risk factors can play a more specific role for women. These include:
Diabetes - women with diabetes are at greater risk of developing heart disease than men with diabetes.
Depression + Emotional Stress - women’s hearts are affected by mental stress more than men.
Inactivity - some research has found women to be more inactive than men.
Menopause - decreased estrogen increases small vessel disease risk.
‘Broken Heart Disease’ - otherwise known as stress cardiomyopathy, acute stressful situations can cause severe, normally temporary heart failure.
Certain Chemotherapy Drugs + Radiation Therapy for Cancers
Pregnancy Complications - i.e. pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes.
Cardiovascular Disease is a largely preventable condition in both males and females and there are numerous ways we can improve our heart health. Regular moderate intensity exercise every/most days of the week for a minimum of 30 minutes is a national recommendation, however most women struggle to simply find the time.
A time efficient tip is to try some interval training. This involves small bursts of exercise (20-50 seconds) followed by less intense activity or a break (10-30 seconds). You could try this on the bike by doing a hard and fast burst followed by a slower and lighter short break. You could also create a small circuit of 4-6 body weight exercises, and following this format can be more time efficient, more exciting, see greater fitness benefits, and decrease your risk of developing heart disease.
Resources for further information:
Australian Heart Foundation - Women and Heart Disease https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/women-and-heart-disease
American Heart Association - Go Red for Women https://www.goredforwomen.org/
TED Talks - The Single Biggest Health Risk for Women by Noel Bairey Merz (2011) https://www.ted.com/talks/noel_bairey_merz_the_single_biggest_health_threat_women_face