Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australian women and kills almost as many women as it does men. Women need to be aware of heart disease and how there may be some gender differences to be aware of.
Your heart is a sophisticated arrangement of muscles. Like any muscle tissue, it needs oxygen and nutrients to function. Coronary heart disease occurs when the blood vessels that supply oxygen and other nutrients to the heart muscles become clogged with a build up of fat, cholesterol and other materials (called plaques). This process is called atherosclerosis and occurs over time. It may eventually cause stiffening and narrowing of the coronary blood vessels, which reduces blood flow and oxygen to the heart.
Reduced blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscles can lead to angina and heart attacks. Angina is chest pain or discomfort that occurs when a person's heart doesn't get enough blood. This pain can sometimes be experienced in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back, or may feel like indigestion.
Sometimes a plaque may rupture and a blood clot forms around it. The plaque and blood clot together can completely block the coronary artery, stopping blood flow and oxygen reaching the heart. This can lead to a heart attack.
The symptoms of heart disease can differ from person to person. Chest pain is the most common symptom. However more often than men, women describe other symptoms and warning signs of heart attack, with or without chest pain. These include:
If you have experienced any of these symptoms or have any questions or concerns about your health, it is recommended that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional.
Older people are at increased risk of heart disease. Women generally experience heart disease later in life than men.
A woman’s chances of developing heart disease also increase after menopause, when the ovaries stop releasing eggs as a result of falling levels of oestrogen. The causes for this are debatable, but it appears that oestrogen may help have a role in protecting women from heart disease. However, hormone replacement therapy, which contains oestrogen and is used to treat the symptoms of menopause, is not recommended for the treatment or prevention of heart disease.
It’s important to remember that plaques can start to build up in your arteries before your teen years, although most people won’t experience symptoms of heart disease until much later. While risk factors like your age or gender can’t be changed other risk factors can be modified, and you can start to protect your heart at an earlier stage in life by paying attention to your these modifiable risk factors.
Risk factors that you can change are also known as behavioural risk factors and are generally linked to your lifestyle. These risk factors are responsible for about 80 percent of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems such as heart disease, and include:
At least 91 percent of women in Australia have one or more of these risk factors. The more risk factors you have and/or the more severe they are, the more likely you are to experience a heart attack or other cardiovascular problems. This is because the effect of each risk factor is cumulative. A single risk factor may be of little concern, but when added to other risk factors it can put you at serious risk of developing heart disease.
The cumulative effect of risk factors is called ‘absolute risk’. The good news is that the more risk factors you manage successfully, the greater your chances of preventing heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. Your doctor can assess your absolute risk and help you make simple changes to your lifestyle habits. Even if you already have heart disease, leading a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of further health issues.
You may experience no symptoms with cardiovascular disease. The first warning that you have is a stroke or heart attack. This is why it is important to try and help reduce your risks by living a healthier lifestyle.
National Heart Foundation of Australia
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Last updated: 13 May 2014
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