February is Heart Research Month. And with Valentine’s Day last week, we wish to draw attention to the heart health of all Australians but particularly that of Australia’s women.
You might be wondering why we need to draw attention to women's heart health issues. Aren't hearts pretty much the same, regardless of a person's gender? The answer, we now know, is no—and yet in the past, most research focused on male subjects. Researchers hadn’t realised that the causes, risk factors, treatment and even symptoms of heart attack and other cardiovascular conditions could be quite different for female patients.
Surveys also showed that many women had misperceptions about their risk of heart disease. Many thought they were at higher risk of dying from breast cancer—even though, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), heart disease is the second cause of death for women in Australia after Dementia including Alzheimer disease. Most women were unaware that heart attack could strike young women. And, when women experienced symptoms of heart attack, they often attributed them to indigestion, a pulled muscle or anxiety. Rather than seek immediate medical attention, they were likely to research their symptoms online or talk to a friend.
To remedy this information gap, health organisations have been working together to raise awareness of heart health among women.
What should women know about heart disease?
Chest pain or discomfort, neck pain, jaw or throat, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea and vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort and shortness of breath, all may be warning signs of a heart attack. A fluttering feeling in the chest, which might mean that a woman is experiencing arrhythmia. Shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen, which might be signs of heart failure (a condition that happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs of the body).
As you can see, some of these symptoms could easily be attributed to other causes – and a busy woman might be tempted to dismiss them.
The American Heart Association (AHA) concurs that the symptoms of heart attack are different for women. In 2016, the AHA released the first scientific statement on heart attacks in women. They shared the good news that the rate of cardiovascular death in women has declined due to improved treatment, prevention and public awareness but warned that women still have a long way to go.
Women should also educate themselves about the causes, treatment and risk factors that are common in women.
Causes. The AHA says heart attacks caused by blockages in the main arteries leading to the heart can occur in both men and women. However, the way the blockages form a blood clot may differ. Compared to men, women can have less severe blockages that do not require any stents [a tiny mesh tube that props open an artery]; yet the heart's coronary artery blood vessels are damaged, which results in decreased blood flow to the heart muscle. The result is the same – when blood flow to the heart is decreased for any reason, a heart attack can occur.
Treatment. The AHA warns that if doctors don't correctly diagnose the underlying cause of a woman's heart attack, they may not be prescribing the right type of treatments after the heart attack. Women also face a greater risk of complications during the attempt to restore blood flow after a heart attack. Their blood vessels are smaller, they tend to be older, and they are more likely to have health conditions that complicate their care, such as diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension). Women are less likely to be prescribed or to take the recommended medications. And they're less likely to take part in cardiac rehabilitation, a program of exercise, counselling and education to lower the risk of another heart attack.
Risk factors. Many risk factors pose more of a threat for women. High blood pressure is more strongly associated with heart attacks in women, and women with diabetes have a four to five times higher risk of heart disease than do diabetic men.
Take care of yourselves and love your heart health!
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