The struggles of a female heart: heart disease in women

Lisa Fisher, Health Promotion Specialist

It may seem strange to be talking about hearts after Valentine’s Day has come and gone. After all, it’s more comfortable to discuss the typical cartoon like shape and how it either bursts with love or breaks with distress, rather than have a real discussion on the organ that pumps in our chest. Heart health and disease awareness is important throughout the entire year and we pay special attention to it in February which is Heart Month.

Did you know that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women over the age of 35 worldwide? Heart disease and stroke kill 31,000 Canadian women per year. Even more worrisome than the number is that many women are unaware that, as a woman, the threat on their lives is high. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, most Canadian women have at least one risk factor and those risk factors increase when a woman has diabetes, comes from certain ethnic backgrounds and/or are menopausal.

Prior to menopause, many women are actually protected from heart disease as a result of estrogen which naturally occurs throughout the reproductive life cycle, between the ages of 12 and 50 approximately. Diabetic women who are pre-menopausal do not benefit from this protective effect and are at the same risk as men in the same age bracket. Women are more likely to develop risk factors after menopause, such as high blood pressure, weight gain and diabetes. Therefore, the risk of cardiovascular disease dramatically increases for women after the age of 65. Although many risk factors are the same for women as they are for men, certain ones are specifically troublesome for women. These include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and family history of heart disease.

Women’s hearts are also different. They will generally have smaller hearts and arteries with higher heart rates than men and have less build-up of plaque. Not only that, but the symptoms are different in women. A classic symptom of a heart attack is angina, which is that sharp crushing chest pain that most people have likely heard of. This is experienced by both men and women. In addition, women can also experience shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and an ache across the upper back and stomach. These symptoms in and of themselves can be difficult for women to recognize as signs of a heart attack.

There is a lack of research on heart disease in women and often
women can be misdiagnosed when discussing their concerns with their medical practitioner. It is important to be an advocate for your own health and ensure that your practitioner is hearing your concerns loud and clear. If you are experiencing symptoms, visit a doctor. To reduce your controllable risk factors, make healthy lifestyle changes including increasing physical activity, having a nutritionally balanced eating pattern, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake and quitting tobacco.

If you would like to learn more about how to make healthy lifestyle changes, contact your medical practitioner or contact the Health Promotion Department (4WGHealthPromotion@forces.gc.ca or 780-840-8000 ext. 6958) for courses and workshops.

References

• Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre. (n.d.). What makes women different? Retrieved from https://cwhhc.ottawaheart.ca/education/what-makes-women-different
• Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. (2020). A fighting chance: 2020 spotlight on women. Retrieved from https://www.heartandstroke.ca/-/media/pdf-files/canada/2020-heart-month-report/hs-2020-spotlight-on-women-en.ashx?rev=981a16792c7c47a3a10c1fec5c3ccdb2&hash=52B8683C4AB200B1B75DAD523A469E6E