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Women and Heart Health

[hr]Let’s start with these alarming facts – heart disease is the biggest cause of death for Australian women, claiming the lives of 9000 women every year. In fact, women are almost three times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer. And, if you are female and 40, your chance of having a heart attack by the time you are 70 is one in three. If you are female and smoke, your chance of heart attack increases to the same as a man’s. [hr]

Women and health heartAlso alarming is that while twice as many men suffer heart attacks as women each year, there is little difference in death rates. Each year 36,000 men and 19,000 women are admitted to hospital after a heart attack while annual death rates of men and women are 4,700 and 4,500 respectively.

According to the Heart Foundation’s women’s health spokesperson, Julie Anne Mitchell, a survey of 504 heart attack survivors uncovered a number of key differences for women.

“Part of the reason women are less likely to survive is that they’re slower to recognise the warning signs of a heart attack, slower to seek help, and when they do get to hospital there is evidence to suggest they’re less likely to receive lifesaving treatment than men,” Ms Mitchell said.

The survey shows women often don’t experience the typical warning signs of a heart attack, with only 27% identifying chest pain as first symptom, compared to 37% of men. While more than 40% of women said they didn’t experienced any chest pain during the onset of their heart attack, they were significantly more likely to experience arm pain than men.

Floyd Larsen, CEO of Heart Research Australia adds that symptoms of heart attack for women are often atypical, confusing both patients and even physicians.

While men may have the classic central chest pain, women will confuse their chest pain with indigestion or heartburn. Women also experience jaw pain, shoulder pain, sweating, nausea and fatigue.

When it comes to seeking medical help, women are far less likely to react (39% of women compared with 52% of men), but are more likely than men to tell a friend or family member (35% vs 25%).

“This is alarming because the faster you get to hospital the better your chances of survival,” Ms Mitchell said.

“We also know that women are less likely to receive heart related procedures than men when they reach hospital – such as angiograms, bypasses and stents. On top of that, women have higher in-hospital death rates and if they do survive, they’re more likely than men to die of a second heart attack.

“It’s important that women not only learn all the warning signs of a heart attack but that they act quickly by calling Triple-0 (000) for help. Treatment can start once that call is made.”

heart health womenThe issue of stroke and heart attack for women is so great that the Heart Foundation has introduced the Go Red for Women campaign, designed to raise awareness about heart disease among women and to ensure women understand the risks and make choices to reduce those risks. While the campaign is highlighted every June, the Foundation works tirelessly to spread its message throughout the year. After all, heart attacks are not seasonal and our focus on living a healthy lifestyle should be a lifelong commitment.

The good news is heart disease is largely preventable and being aware of the risk factors, as well as the symptoms of heart disease, will put you in good stead. The problem is, women are not actively aware of the risks. Heart Foundation statistics reveal only 1 in 20 women aged 45-65 considers high blood pressure and cholesterol to be important risk factors for heart disease while four in five women believe a lack of physical activity and poor diet put their hearts at greater risk. One in three adult women have high cholesterol, but 90 percent of those women don’t know it. One in four women over the age of 35 have high blood pressure but two thirds who do, don’t know it.

“We’re very concerned that women are failing to prioritise their health, by not getting their blood pressure and cholesterol checked by a doctor,” Ms Mitchell said.

“There are often no signs or symptoms associated with high blood pressure and high cholesterol which is why women can overlook it. However it is vital that women know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels so that they are armed to take steps to reduce them if they are too high,” Ms Mitchell said. There are other factors to consider when it comes to heart health.

Some (non modifiable) risk factors you can’t control are:

  • age
  • ethnic background
  • having family history of heart disease

Other modifiable risk factors you can change include:

  • smoking – both active smoking and being exposed to second-hand smoke
  • diabetes
  • being physically inactive
  • being overweight
  • depression, social isolation and lack of quality support

Smoking Is A Major Risk For Heart Disease.

Of the more than 40 australians a day who die from smoking, nearly 40 per cent of those deaths are due to cardiovascular disease.

“Tobacco smoking is the single most preventable cause of ill health and death in Australia. It contributes to more hospitalisations and deaths each year than alcohol and illicit drug use combined,” Floyd Larsen, CEO Heart Research Australia said.

Heart Research Australia’s Chair of Preventative Cardiology’s Professor Geoffrey Tofler recently conducted a study with colleagues involving 116 patients with suspected heart attacks, exploring why smokers find it easier to quit after a teachable moment such as a heart attack, even though they were unable to do so previously.

Prof Tofler said: “Almost two thirds (65%) of the 116 patients (84 men and 32 women) who were hospitalised at Royal North Shore and North Shore Private Hospitals were able to stop smoking after the heart attack, and this was well maintained for one year (61%). The impact of the heart attack was stronger than when the patients only had angina, and their quitting was also more likely to occur if the patient was living with a non-smoker.”

Prof Roger Bartrop, psychiatrist and study investigator, stated that the strongest motivator for quitting was the heart attack and its consequences, supported by the importance of the personalized impact of the heart attack. Registered Nurses Ann Kirkness and Helen Glinatsis, also noted that the initial quit rate was greater among those who attended cardiac rehabilitation.

The researchers have extended this idea of the heart attack as a teachable moment, by producing a simulated, personalized video, whereby a smoker without heart disease can view himself or herself having a heart attack and see the consequences it has on their loved ones. This novel approach to behaviour change is being explored in a larger randomised trial, which is currently recruiting smokers to assist in their research.


Many Women Often Ask If There Is A Link Between Menopause And Heart Disease.

According to the National Heart Foundation, the risk of heart disease increases significantly after you reach menopause. There appears to be a link between reduced levels of the hormone oestrogen.

Earlier this year, scientists from Monash University’s Faculty of Biomedical and Psychological Sciences had their research on the link between oestrogen and heart disease published in the international journal Stroke. The study looked at a little known oestrogen receptor that occurs in men and women. Scientists found that by blocking this receptor in males they can alleviate the symptoms of stroke if given up to four hours after the event. However – they have also shown that – by triggering this receptor in older women, it has the potential to protect females from the harmful effects of stroke. The research opens new ways to effectively treat heart disease, depending on the gender of the patient and is considered a significant breakthrough.


New Research Has Found There Is A Real Lack Of Understanding About Heart Healthy Foods And How They Can Help With Cholesterol.

Beta-glucan is a type of soluble dietary fibre found in cereal grains like oats and barley. Research shows that 3 grams of beta-glucan per day can help in lowering cholesterol absorption.

A good source of beta-glucan is oats, which were used for medicinal purposes before they were consumed as food. The beta-glucan found in oats can help reduce cholesterol reabsorption and help stabilize blood sugar. So having a bowl of porridge in the morning can help make it easier to keep blood sugar levels under control and cravings at bay.


Heart Attack Warning Signs May Include:

Pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more parts of the upper body (chest, neck, jaw, arm(s), shoulder(s) or back) in combination with other symptoms of nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness or a cold sweat.


Case Study

Sue Ann Patterson, 59 

Sue-Anne-Patterson-2Ten years ago as a private practice physiotherapist, Sue Ann Patterson was preparing to teach a late afternoon class when she says she felt an impending sense of doom. Fifteen minutes into the class she felt a sudden blow of pain.

“It was like someone slapped me between the shoulder blades and the pain radiated through to the front … then the heaviness started,” she says.

“It was not painful by any means, more a discomfort and pressure, and I did have a cardiac moment but I dismissed it and thought ‘Why would it be my heart’?”

Sue had been taking high blood pressure medication for more than 30 years.

“My cholesterol was normal, there was no history of heart disease … and I walked every day,” she says.

She went to bed with pain that didn’t get worse but still unwell the next morning, went to her GP who took an ECG — and immediately called an ambulance. She had a heart attack.

Sue spent weeks in a cardiac ward undergoing treatment for her coronary artery spasm which damaged the wall of her heart.

Now a volunteer in cardiac rehabilitation at Manly Hospital she is helping others recover.

“Women typically don’t want to make a fuss and put up with discomfort all the time but if you have anything going on in your chest then get straight to a hospital,” she says.

“No one ever died of embarrassment but women die of heart attacks every day.”

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Alana Lowes

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