Women and Heart Disease

Women and Heart Disease

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.

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.

Common questions about risk factors

  • 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.

  • Risk factors for younger women

    Risk factors for heart disease can start early in a woman’s life. Enjoying healthy eating and regular physical activity as well as being smoke-free are important behaviours for young women to keep their hearts healthy.

    Physical inactivity and poor food choices can have a significant impact on a woman’s health by contributing to overweight and obesity. Currently 27.6% of women 35-44 years of age are overweight and another 30.7% obese [ABS. 2014/15 Australian Health Survey].

  • 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. Having a family history of cardiovascular disease will add to this risk.

    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.

  • 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.


What are the warning signs of heart attack in women?  

Research has shown that just over half of women who have a heart attack experienced chest pain, however many other women will only experience non-typical symptoms like breathlessness, nausea and arm or jaw pain. 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. Research has found every minute counts.

Watch this video'Just a little heart attack' starring Elizabeth Banks.

Download: Heart Attack warning signs(PDF)

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 by 30-50%, 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 a multidisclipinary health care team throughout her pregnancy. Because of the increased cardiac demands during pregnancy and labour it is important that any woman with a pre-existing heart condition is assessed by a cardiologist with expertise in maternal cardiology before becoming pregnant.

In a very small number of women, vascular conditions like high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia* and gestational diabetes* may emerge during the pregnancy. These women will also be closely monitored by their health team throughout their pregnancy. Recent research also recommends ongoing monitoring of heart disease risk factors for these women post pregnancy. Vascular complications in pregnancy might be a signpost to heart disease problems in later life.

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.

Heart Conditions in 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).

Common questions about women and heart disease

  • 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.

  • 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.

*Pre-eclampsia is a serious disorder unique to pregnancy. It is characterised by high maternal blood pressure and the involvement of one or more of the body’s organ systems. This most commonly involves the kidneys and protein in the urine and severe fluid retention is often seen in these women.

Women diagnosed with pre-eclampsia or high blood pressure in pregnancy are at increased risk of subsequent hypertension and cardiovascular disease. It is recommended that women who have experienced pre-eclampsia or hypertension in pregnancy have an annual blood pressure check and regular assessment of other cardiovascular risk factors. [Society of Obstetric Medicine of Australia and New Zealand. Guideline for the Management of Hypertensive Disorders of Pregnancy. 2014.]

 *Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy and is diagnosed when higher than normal blood glucose levels first appear during pregnancy. While the mother’s blood glucose usually returns to normal after the birth of the baby, women who have experienced gestational diabetes have an increased risk of developing Type II diabetes in later life.

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