Heart Disease in Women: A Timely Reminder

Valentine’s Day comes with a timely reminder for heart disease in women.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, with three to four times more women dying from heart disease than breast cancer in Australia.

Women having a heart attack can have severe chest pain, but many experience more subtle symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, nausea, burning sensations similar to heartburn, discomfort in their arms, neck and jaw, shortness of breath, sweating or nausea.

The difference in the nature of heart attack symptoms between men and women often means that women present later to Hospital and, upon arrival at Hospital, recent studies in the US, UK and Australia have demonstrated that women’s symptoms can result in missed diagnoses. Women are referred less for in-hospital treatments such as angioplasty and also are referred less and attend fewer cardiac rehabilitation programmes, with poorer outcomes as a result.

Prior to a heart attack, some diagnostic tests for heart disease indicators are less accurate in women than men, women are less likely to seek help quickly for nonspecific symptoms and some health professionals are less likely to check for heart disease for so-called recent onset nonspecific symptoms.

The National Heart Foundation of Australia has developed several videos and documented personal stories to raise awareness for heart disease in women, the signs, and symptoms of heart disease at invisiblevisible.org.au

Previously each risk factor was individually measured and treated. It is now recommended that your overall risk be assessed using several measures to determine your personal risk score. Men statistically are at higher risk than women for developing heart disease in middle age, but hormonal changes after menopause and possibly increases in other lifestyle-related risk factors cause a woman’s risk of heart disease to increase over time to probably equal men. There is no single cause of coronary heart disease. Several risk factors cannot be changed, including family history, racial factors and increasing age. The good news is that others can be managed.

Heart disease risk factors that you can change include:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Physical Inactivity
  • Overweight
  • Depression, social isolation and poor social support

It is important for women, particularly at menopausal age, to have their individual risk markers assessed and their overall heart disease risk calculated. Your GP is in an ideal position to arrange the measures, review the risk factors and assist with changes that are recommended to reduce overall scores.

The website heartresearch.com.au provides overviews regarding many factors linked to heart disease and more details about definitions and diagnoses

Dr Lisa Surman, CBD West Medical Centre, Perth, WA

Member of Best Practice Software’s Clinical Leadership Advisory Committee