What Every Woman Should Know About Heart Disease

A new report paints a sobering picture of just how deadly a heart attack can be for women

Heart disease is still the leading cause of premature death for women in Canada

Women and men share many heart disease risk factors. However, women often develop symptoms that are subtler and harder to detect as a heart attack. When it comes to heart health, why do these distinctions matter? Because, it is resulting in the leading cause of premature death for women in this country.

“The most common symptoms for both men and women are chest pain… that is the classic Hollywood male version,” says Dr. Karin Humphries, scientific director of BC Centre for Improved Cardiovascular Health. “However, most women will likely report atypical symptoms, such as sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, and they will complain about unexplained joint pain in the neck, back or jaw.”

Women are also more likely than men to have a feeling of general weakness or a sensation of heartburn that seems to be related to exertion rather than to eating.

“There is still so much we don’t know, and we have an urgent need to better understand the differences between men and women,” says Dr. Humphries.

A recently released Heart & Stroke 2018 Heart Report paints a sobering picture of just how deadly a heart attack can be for women. According to the most recent Statistics Canada data, close to 25,000 women die each year from heart disease.


The Risk Factors

“For both men and women, the main risk factors are smoking and diabetes,” says Dr. Humphries. “However, the impact of these risks is worse in women. To be honest, we aren’t completely sure why diabetes increases a women’s risk of heart disease, but we suspect it might be because women with diabetes more often have other added risk factors, such as obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”

Additional threats include increased hypertension during menopause, family history and a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy.


How to Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

It is a tragedy. And it doesn’t have to happen.

The good news is that there “are many ways in which women can significantly reduce their risk,” says Dr. Humphries

First off, quit smoking, or better yet don’t start. The evidence is overwhelming that cigarette smoking increases the risks of heart disease, lung disease, peripheral vascular disease and stroke.

The Heart & Stroke Foundation also suggests women eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, and low in animal products, simple carbohydrates and processed foods.

Other factors to lower your risk include regular exercise, maintaining a normal weight, blood pressure, blood lipid and blood sugar levels.

“It’s important for women to be proactive in reducing their heart attack risk,” says Humphries. “I encourage women to advocate for themselves … I doubt most women engage with their doctors about their risks of heart disease, but they must.”

Although, overall rates of hospitalizing related to heart disease have gone down in British Columbia, alarmingly the number of women under the age of 55 have increased.

“This is a very worrisome trend,” says Dr. Humphries. “Sadly, young women in this age group are smoking more, have higher levels of stress and rates of obesity.”


Women’s Heart Disease Quick Facts

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death for women in Canada (dying before reaching their expected lifespan)
  • Early heart attack signs were missed in 78 percent of women
  • Every 20 minutes a woman in Canada dies from heart disease
  • Five times as many women die from heart disease as breast cancer
  • Two-thirds of heart disease clinical research focuses on men
  • Women who have a heart attack are more likely to die or suffer a second heart attack compared to men

Courtesy of the BC Heart & Stroke Foundation