Every seven minutes in Canada, someone dies from it. Of all female deaths in Canada, 31% can be attributed to it. For Canadian women over 55, it’s the number one killer. And it costs the Canadian economy more than $22.2 billion every year in physician services, hospital costs, lost wages, and decreased productivity.
The most unfortunate fact about this deadly and costly disease? It’s largely preventable.
When it comes to heart disease, most people think of it as being only one condition. In actuality, heart disease – or disease of the heart – refers to any one of a number of different problems that compromise the structure and/or function of the heart.
The most common is coronary heart disease, which refers to the failure of the coronary circulation system (consisting of the heart and blood vessels) to supply adequate circulation to cardiac muscle (the muscle that keeps your heart pumping). Coronary heart disease most commonly happens when blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients to the heart become clogged.
The culprit causing the clogging is called plaque, which can be any combination of fatty materials, calcium and scar tissue. If enough plaque accumulates to block a blood vessel, a heart attack – a potentially fatal loss of blood supply – can happen.
Once considered a ‘man’s disease’, today, heart disease is the number one killer of women in Canada and worldwide. While there are many similarities about heart disease for both women and men, there are some unique aspects to women's heart health that are important to know.
For example, from approximately age 12 to 50, the naturally occurring hormone called estrogen provides a protective effect on a woman’s cardiovascular health. However, estrogen levels are affected by a number of factors and conditions, including taking birth control pills, bodily changes during pregnancy, and the onset of menopause.
Because estrogen has a positive effect on heart health, women tend to develop heart disease later in life – after menopause. While a man's risk of developing heart disease increases in his 40s, a woman's risk becomes similar to a man's risk about 10 years after menopause.
Despite modern research and increasing awareness of heart disease, it is still considered under-detected in women. This could be because women – who are often busy taking care of others and putting their own health last – tend to ignore their risk of heart disease, and may not seek medical attention as quickly as they should. This could also be because women describe their pain differently than men, and therefore, are not being diagnosed in the same way as men.
Another alarming fact is that once women do seek treatment, they are less likely to be referred to a heart specialist, be referred for further testing, be hospitalized, or be prescribed medication or other treatment. As a result, women do not always get the health care they need. So it’s no surprise that today, women are more likely than men to die of a heart attack or stroke – and are ten times more likely to die from heart disease than from any other disease.
The early warning signs of heart disease and/or heart attacks are now considered the same for men and women. The most common symptoms are discomfort in the chest that doesn't go away with rest; sudden severe or crushing chest discomfort that may move to other parts of the body; heaviness, pressure, squeezing, burning or tightness in the chest, shoulder, arm, neck, back or jaw, that doesn't go away; or unusual pain spreading down one or both arms.
Other signs may include shortness of breath or unusual fatigue; difficulty breathing; difficulty carrying out activities that used to be easy; paleness, sweating and/or weakness; nausea or vomiting; or indigestion that is unrelieved by antacids.
If there is any good news associated with heart disease, it’s that lifestyle choices can help decrease the risk of developing heart disease. Here are some important habits to adopt, that will have a positive impact on your heart health.
Don’t smoke. Women who smoke have a higher risk of heart attack than non-smoking women, especially if taking birth control pills.
Be physically active. Your heart is a muscle. Work it for a minimum of 2.5 hours each week to help keep it fit and functioning.
Watch your weight. Women who are overweight have a greater risk of developing heart disease. Determine a healthy weight for you, achieve it, and maintain it.
Eat healthy. Cholesterol is an essential nutrient for the body – but too much of the wrong kind can block your arteries. Choose foods that are lower in saturated fat, and avoid Trans fats all together.
Manage diabetes. If you already have diabetes, take good care of it. If you have a family history of diabetes, do what you can to avoid getting diabetes in the first place.
Limit alcohol use. While some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may offer some health benefits, too much of it can have a toxic effect on your body.
Reduce stress. Since stress may be associated with an increased risk for heart disease, find ways to deal with stressors in your life.
Visit your doctor. Be sure to go for regular medical check-ups. Have your doctor listen to your heart, check your blood pressure, and test cholesterol levels.
Evaluate your risk by taking ‘The Heart Truth’ quiz at http://www.thehearttruth.ca/evaluate_your_risk