Heart disease just as common in women

Knowing the signs and symptoms critical to prevention of heart attacks

If you’re a woman, you may not believe you’re as vulnerable to a heart attack as men – but you are. In some instances, women may not notice the signs of heart attack. They may think that other health problems are causing their symptoms or that the symptoms will go away on their own. As a result, women don’t always receive medical care quickly enough to prevent complications or death from a heart attack.

Today, we know that heart disease affects as many women as men. In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death in Canada for women over the age of 55 and almost as many women as men die from heart attacks.

To support you and your family in preventing or in managing heart disease, Agassiz Community Health, together with its partners, will be hosting a public information day on Tuesday, February 14 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the District of Kent Fitness/Activity Centre located at 6660 Pioneer Avenue in Agassiz. You will be able to have your blood pressure tested, observe exercise classes in session, have access to advice from health professionals, and gather important information to take home and read.

Not too long ago, heart disease was considered predominantly a man’s disease. Men were the breadwinners and their hard work sometimes led to chest pain and heart attacks. Women, on the other hand, had “female problems” and heart disease was not one of them. Symptoms reported by women that would have been considered signs of heart disease in men were often dismissed as meaningless or even fictitious. As a consequence, until recently, research on heart disease focused mainly on men.

From those studies emerged the “classic” symptoms of heart attack: chest pain (a painful, crushing feeling behind the breastbone), tingling down the arm (usually the left arm), accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, nausea indigestion-like symptoms and clammy skin.

In the past, it was believed that women and men had different warning signs of heart attack. This may not be the case. Both women and men may experience typical or non-typical symptoms such as pain in the arm, throat, jaw or pain that is unusual, pain that may feel like burning, squeezing, heaviness, tightness or pressure, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, sweating, fear, anxiety, and denial. Although women may describe their pain differently from men, nevertheless, the most common symptom in women and men is still chest pain.

So what puts women at risk for heart disease and heart attacks? Some of the risk factors like age, gender, family history of heart disease, or ethnicity cannot be controlled. But, there are risk factors like high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, smoking, and stress which can be controlled.

While these risk factors are the same as those for men, there are unique aspects related to women’s heart health:

• Role of estrogen — During a woman’s reproductive life cycle, about age 12 to 50, the naturally-occurring hormone estrogen provides a protective effect on women’s cardiovascular health. However, estrogen’s protective effect can change depending on a variety of factors.

• Birth control pills — In a small percentage of women, oral contraceptives increase the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots. This risk is increased by smoking and other existing risk factors.

• Pregnancy — Over the nine months of gestation, women may develop certain conditions like pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes that might put them at higher risk of heart disease.

• Menopause — The overall risk of heart disease may increase due to the reduction of the hormones estrogen and progesterone produced by the body.

• Cholesterol — After menopause, as natural estrogen levels drop, more and more women tend to develop high cholesterol.

• Triglycerides — They are the most common type of fat in the body. A high triglyceride level often goes with higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad” cholesterol), lower levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol) and an increased risk of diabetes. Research suggests that having high triglycerides may increase the risk of heart disease.

For women, knowing about the risks of heart disease and recognizing the signs of a heart attack is critical. But, what is even more important is understanding that you can take steps to prevent heart disease. That means eliminating – or at least – minimizing the risk factors you can control by stopping smoking, becoming physically active, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, controlling diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and following your doctor’s recommendations.

Some women believe that making just one healthy change will take care of all of their heart disease risk. To protect your heart, it is vital to make changes that address each risk factor you have – each has the individual potential to greatly increase a woman’s chance of developing heart disease. You can make the changes gradually, one at a time. But making them is very important. The take-away message? Be aware of your risk factors and take them seriously. The actions you take now to lower your risk may just save your life.

– Submitted by Agassiz Community Health