Many people aren’t aware that heart disease is the number one killer of women over the age of 55. In fact, women are more likely to die from heart disease than from any other condition, including cancer. Most women in Canada have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, a term that includes heart attacks, strokes and other serious conditions.
Heart disease can be different in women than in men
While there are basic similarities in how the disease develops in both sexes, women’s symptoms are often different from men’s. Unlike men, many women don’t experience crushing chest pain — a classic heart attack symptom. Instead, many women feel pressure, aching or tightness during a heart attack. They often also feel extremely tired or short of breath. Other symptoms can include nausea and pain in the belly, neck or shoulder. Sometimes, women might have extreme fatigue and disturbed sleep a month or two before a heart attack.
For the most part, both sexes share the same risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. High blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits all increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. However, women do have some additional risk factors:
- Birth control pills: Woman over the age of 35 who smoke while taking birth control pills have a much higher risk of developing high blood pressure and blood clots that can cause a stroke.
- Pregnancy: Women who experience complications during pregnancy known as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or pregnancy-induced hypertension have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular problems later in life – even if the pregnancy-related condition goes away.
- Menopause: When women reach menopause, their risk of developing heart disease increases, although we don’t know exactly why. Before menopause, a woman’s estrogen (a female sex hormone) helps protect against heart disease by increasing her “good” cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol) and lowering her “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL-cholesterol). After menopause, women have higher cholesterol levels than men do. Their increased risk of heart disease may be related to these changes, although the use of hormone replacement therapy is controversial and may actually increase heart disease risk.
- Diabetes: Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease in women more than it does in men.
- Smoking: Women who smoke are twice as likely to have a heart attack as male smokers are.
- Metabolic syndrome: This syndrome refers to the combination of three or more risk factors, which can include a large waist, high blood pressure, glucose intolerance (abnormal processing of sugar by your cells), low “good” cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol), and high blood levels of another fat called “triglycerides”. Metabolic syndrome increases your chance of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It may be the biggest risk factor in women for having heart attacks at an unusually early age.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet, more exercise and quitting smoking can all reduce a woman’s risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.