Women and heart disease

Women and heart disease

Heart disease is for middle-aged men to worry about isn’t it?

No. Heart disease is the single biggest killer of Australian women. Women are almost three times more likely to die of it than breast cancer. These are alarming figures but they don’t need to be.

Am I at risk?

Every hour of every day an Australian woman dies of heart disease so yes heart disease is  an issue most women need to consider carefully. In Australia, 90% of women have one risk factor and 50% of women have two or three risk factors. The good news is that many of these risk factors can be reduced with positive lifestyle changes. Find out more about risk factors. 

Are there some risk factors are women more likely to have?

A 2010 national report on Australian women found that the most common risk factors affecting women were high cholesterol, high rates of overweight and obesity and high rates of physical inactivity. Research also shows that smoking, poorly controlled diabetes and depression are greater risk factors of heart disease for women than men. 

What heart conditions affect women?

Like men, women can be diagnosed with a range of conditions that include angina, heart attack, heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms. Other heart conditions include inherited heart conditions or heart problems that are present at birth (congenital heart disease).

What are the warning signs of a heart attack in women?

Research has found around 40% of women will not experience chest pain as a warning sign, so it’s important to know the full range of heart attack warning signs and act quickly by calling Triple 000 if you think something is wrong. Every minute counts. Watch this video 'Just a little heart attack’ starring Elizabeth Banks.

When is a woman’s risk of heart disease greatest?

Heart disease can occur at any age however at a population level this risk increases significantly around menopause. It is not clear why women tend to get heart disease at a later age than men although it is thought that a drop in women’s oestrogen levels as well as other changes that occur around this time may be part of the reason. The important point is to have a heart health check with your doctor and know your personal risk of developing heart disease. With this information you can take active steps to lower your risk.

Does Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) prevent heart disease?

HRT, which includes oestrogen replacement, has been used for many years to treat short-term menopausal symptoms. In some women, depending on their GP’s advice HRT has also been used after menopause for those with osteoporosis. There has been a lot of research into the effects of HRT on the development of heart disease and based on this research the Heart Foundation does not recommend Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) in the treatment or prevention of heart disease. Before commencing HRT women should discuss the risks and benefits of the therapy with their GP. 

Does the use of oral contraception increase heart disease risk in women?

For young women oral contraceptives are usually safe. However women who smoke while they take the contraceptive pill greatly increase their risk of heart disease, stroke and blood clots in their legs and lungs. For young women with a known history of heart or blood vessel disease its best to discuss the use of oral contraception with your doctor first.

What are the risks of heart disease in pregnancy?

Most women will have a happy, heathy pregnancy however pregnancy is like an “ultimate stress test for the body’.  As a pregnancy advances a woman’s blood volume increases, her blood pressure may change and her heart will have to work harder.
A woman with a pre-existing heart condition is encouraged to see her doctor before trying to conceive and may need closer monitoring by her health care team especially in the later stages of her pregnancy. In a very small number of women, vascular conditions like high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) or gestational diabetes may emerge during the pregnancy. These women will also be closely monitored by their health team. 
As general advice pregnant women are encouraged to eat a healthy diet, participate in regular physical activity, quit smoking, maintain a healthy weight and not use alcohol during their pregnancy.

What are common diagnostic tests and procedures for heart disease?

There are range of medical tests and procedures  for heart and blood vessel disease. Find out more about medical tests. 

What happens next if diagnosed with a heart condition?

Women of any age may be diagnosed with a heart condition and what happens next can be dependent on the type of heart problem. If you have been discharged from hospital after a diagnosis or treatment then the steps to recovery are likely to be regular check-ups with your doctor; referral to a cardiac rehabilitation program; being given medication  and making positive lifestyle changes  to manage your heart health over the longer term. 

Is there particular information women should be aware of?

It’s a common belief that women are better at looking after their health than men. But when it comes to heart health, research shows that many women don’t.  They often put the needs of others before themselves.  Which means they are less likely to attend cardiac rehabilitation, less likely to take their medication regularly and are less likely to make the lifestyle changes necessary for good health. Family, friends and the medical profession all have an important role to play in supporting women live well with heart disease. Find more information on living with heart disease. 

When can I expect to return to an everyday life?

After a heart attack or heart surgery you may have questions about how soon you can drive again, return to work, do exercise or gardening, or start having sex. It’s normal to feel anxious about this but you can live well with heart disease. Find out more about looking after yourself.

Why is heart disease in women now attracting attention?

Heart disease in women is often described as under-recognised, under-treated and under-researched. It is the leading cause of death in Australian women yet awareness is low. We have been tracking women’s knowledge and awareness of heart disease for over 8 years now and they commonly report:

•    Heart disease is of low personal relevance
•    Breast cancer is of greater concern
•    There is a  poor understanding of clinical risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol 
•    There is limited knowledge about the warning signs of a heart attack and what to do if they experience them; and 
•    Many consider heart disease easily fixed.  There is low recognition that heart disease can affect quality of life if not managed well. 

Are there any stories of women willing to share their experience of heart disease?

Each day 134 Australian women are hospitalised for a range of heart disease conditions. Listen to real women share their stories.

Mary shares her story of angina followed by bypass surgery.

Jacqui tells of her 3 heart attacks at the age of 43 and life following surgery to have a stent implanted.  

Jo shares her story of heart disease symptoms experienced in her in 40's, implantation of a stent and later bypass surgery. 

Liza shares her experience of sudden coronary artery dissection and cardiac arrest at the age of 42.  

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