Once a woman reaches the age of 50-52 (the average age for natural menopause) the risk of heart disease dramatically increases and the older a woman becomes the more likely she is to get heart disease.
Many people think of heart disease as a man’s problem, however, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the UK, US and most developed countries, claiming more lives than breast cancer and lung cancer combined. Women don’t realise how great a threat heart disease is.
There is a general misconception that estrogen and other female hormones protect women against heart disease and that young women do not get heart disease or suffer heart attacks. Unfortunately, young women do get heart attacks which can prove to be fatal.
Experts says that women who are overweight and/or have diabetes should be getting their hearts checked out. Likewise, you should be screened for early detection if either of your parents were diagnosed with heart disease at an early age.
What is Cardiovascular Disease?
Cardiovascular disease is caused by narrowing of the blood vessels. The way in which it materialises is dependent upon which blood vessels are impacted.
Age 70 years and beyond, men and women are equally at risk.
Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction) – occurs when the blood supply to the heart is blocked.
Angina – occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries are narrowed, thus restricting blood supply to the heart.
Stroke – occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.
Peripheral Vascular Disease – caused by narrowing of the arteries to the peripheries – causes calf pain.
Heart Disease In Women – Importance Of Medical History
Preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and high blood pressure in pregnancy can all have a lingering effect, increasing the risk of heart disease. If you find yourself with heart attack symptoms make sure that conditions such as these are given to the healthcare professional as part of your medical history, even if they occurred many years ago.
Symptoms Of Heart Attack In Women
Classic signs (not necessarily experienced by women):-
Crushing chest pain
Pain down the left arm
Women are more likely to present with atypical symptoms:-
- Some form of pain/discomfort or pressure in the chest (not always the most severe or prominent symptom)
- Gastrointestinal upset, nausea, vomiting
- Pain in the jaw, neck, shoulders or upper back – the nerves that supply these areas of your body also supply the heart
- Extreme fatigue
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Shortness of breath
Heart palpitations, flutters or rapid heartbeat can be a sign of heart disease but are not a hard and fast rule as they can also be linked to an overactive thyroid, hormonal changes in menopause, increased stress or as a result of too much caffeine.
Hot flushes, most commonly associated with menopause, can be a symptom of angina if they occur on exertion.
Women’s symptoms tend to be more subtle because we have blockages in the smaller arteries (small vessel heart disease or microvascular disease) that supply blood to the heart as well as blockages in the main arteries.
Risk Factors For Heart Disease In Women
The risk factors affecting both men and women are:-
Metabolic Syndrome – a combination of fat around your middle, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and triglycerides.
Stress and depression – make it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment.
Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease in the smaller blood vessels.
Family history – if either of your parents were diagnosed with CVD before the age of 50 you have an increased risk of developing it. Speak to your healthcare professional about screening for early detection.
Heart Disease In Women and Menopause
Estrogen helps to combat the build up of unhealthy cholesterol.
Women who go through a surgically induced menopause increase their risk of heart disease due to the fact that estrogen levels drop suddenly.
There is an associated risk of heart disease in women who have early menopause (41-45 years).
Estrogen is believed to have a positive effect on the inner layer of the artery wall, helping to keep blood vessels flexible – allowing them to relax and expand to accommodate blood flow.
You need to take advice from your healthcare professional if you are deemed to be at risk or have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and are taking hormone replacement therapy. For many years now, the outcome of various studies has been contradictory regarding the risk/benefit of HRT and heart disease prevention/occurrence.
Prevention is important – all women can take steps to prevent it by practicing healthy lifestyle habits.
What Can You Do To Reduce Your Chances Of Getting Heart Disease?
Know your blood pressure and keep it under control. Normal blood pressure 120/80. A reading consistently higher than
140/90 requires treatment.
Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, swimming and dancing for 30-60 minutes most days of the week. Breaking this up into several 10-15 minute sessions will have the same benefits.
Don’t smoke. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease and stopping at any age will help to reduce the risk.
Get tested for diabetes and if diagnosed, keep it under control.
Know your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and keep them under control.
Eat a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt and high in fibre. Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, fish and soy. Essential vitamins and minerals for women.
There are many health benefits linked to herbal tea. Most contain many essential vitamins and minerals and have high levels of anti-oxidant properties.
Maintain a healthy weight. Although this varies from woman to woman, having a normal body mass index (BMI) is beneficial. A BMI of 25 or higher can be associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Losing 10-15 pounds can help by lowering your blood pressure and reducing your risk of diabetes. Weight distribution is very important, your waist (just above your naval) should measure below 35 inches.
Heart Disease Treatment
Prescribed medications – blood pressure medication, blood thinner medications, aspirin. You should consult with your healthcare professional before taking aspirin so that he/she can discuss the risks/benefits.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes will all need to be controlled.
Interventional procedures such as Stents.
In some cases surgery may be necessary.
Some women may benefit from the use of supplements such as Omega 3 fatty acids.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “The Healthy Heart Handbook for Women.”
American College of Cardiology: “Women and Heart Disease.”
Morag Thow, Keri Graham, Choi Lee, (May 2013) “The Healthy Heart Book”.