What women need to know about their hearts
If I asked you to think about women’s health, what might you think of?
Chances are, you might think of the ‘bikini areas’ - breast checks, pregnancy, cervical screening.
This is what we see in the media or even what we see our doctors for. However, women’s health is so much more than this even though it forms a big part of our lives.
Women’s health encompasses mental health, bone health and importantly heart health. I say importantly because heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. In fact, we’re three times as likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer.
Knowledge about women’s hearts isn’t just something that women themselves don’t know.
Until recently, even doctors and nurses didn’t have a good handle on how important women’s hearts are. Research specifically looking into women’s heart disease - how it happens, why we’re different and how to best care for us - has only been something that has been happening recently.
Since knowledge is power, it's a great way to start your journey to a lifetime with a happy, healthy heart.
Here's what you need to know about your heart.
Women and heart health
Heart attacks happen when the arteries that supply blood to the heart, called coronary arteries get blocked and the heart muscle beyond that dies (or nearly dies).
Over the years, we have gotten pretty good at preventing and treating heart attacks. Except in women. When women have heart attacks, they tend to do worse than men.
This is probably because women don’t necessarily get the treatment they need or our treatments aren’t geared towards their hearts, as they are in men.
Symptoms in women
On TV or in movies, when a character has a heart attack, he usually grabs his chest and falls to the ground. When that happens, we all know he’s having a heart attack.
In real life, women may not have these classical symptoms of pain in the chest or in the left arm. Women are more likely to have discomfort rather than pain in the chest, pain in their back or upper abdomen, shortness of breath or not being able to do the things they could before.
It’s why if you think something is amiss for you, it’s important to get checked out.
A heart attack is an emergency. If you experience the warning signs of a heart attack, get help fast. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
Special heart problems in women
There are a couple of heart conditions that we see almost exclusively in women. One is called spontaneous coronary artery dissection or SCAD. This condition is the most common cause of a heart attack in women under 50 years old.
The other is called broken heart syndrome or more correctly, takotsubo syndrome. This is when the heart can’t pump very well, usually after an emotional shock and occurs most commonly in postmenopausal women.
Pregnancy and menopause
Pregnancy is sometimes called the ‘ultimate stress test’ because of the extra work a woman’s body has to do.
Conditions that occur during pregnancy, like preeclampsia (high blood pressure with some other symptoms) or gestational diabetes are associated with an increased risk of heart problems down the track.
Women who have had these conditions should be keeping a close eye on their hearts with their GP.
Menopause is also a time when we see an uptick in heart problems with women since oestrogen drops and usually, it’s very good at protecting our heart from heart attacks. It may mean discussing HRT or other ways to keep your heart healthy.
How to take care of your heart
The good news is that you can absolutely reduce your risk of heart disease through pretty simple means. And the earlier you start in life, the fitter and healthier you will be for longer.
The best ways to look after your heart are really the basics:
- Move your body - aim for some form of exercise or activity for 150 minutes per week. Not sure what to do or what is best? Anything you can do to move your body is good for you so choose something that you enjoy and you know you can keep up with
- Eat a healthful diet - a diet that is full of vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and healthy oils is a great bet for your heart health.
- Give up the smokes - if you smoke, quitting can be hard but it is also the best thing you can do for your health. To get support, chat to your GP, pharmacist or contact Quitline. Enlist your family and friends to cheer on your efforts
- Get some rest - getting adequate, good quality sleep not only directly benefits your heart, but it also helps you eat well and exercise. Try to get around eight hours a night and make sure you practice good sleep hygiene so that means no phones in bed!
- Chat to your doctor - everyone should know their heart health status. Your GP can check your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels and help you proactively manage your cardiovascular health.
Identifying problems early can stave off bigger ones later on. If you’re over 45-years-old, your GP can do a heart health check (35-years-old if you’re an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person)
- Tell your friends, tell everyone! - since many women don’t know that heart disease is something that they need to be aware of, it’s vital to spread the word so that they can do all these important things for their hearts too.
Dr Nikki Stamp is an Australian trained cardiothoracic surgeon and PhD candidate. She has a strong desire to change the way we think about health and is a passionate supporter of the Heart Foundation and women's heart disease advocacy. Nikki is a member of the healthylife Advisory Board.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board September 2021