Getting To The Heart Of Women’s Health
Prevention and Treatment New risk factors for women underscore the need for greater awareness of heart disease.
Heart disease kills six times more Canadian women than breast cancer and it’s the leading cause of death among women. This doesn’t have to be the case. Boosting awareness and embracing new education tools and knowledge can help curb the upward trend of the disease.
Sue Williams, a retired nurse and professor from Ryerson University in Toronto, was one of the lucky ones. In 2007, at age 60, she suffered a full cardiac arrest during a vacation to England. She had a family history of heart disease, but no other risk factors.
She did the right things to monitor her health, like having her cholesterol and blood pressure monitored, underwent a stress test and got annual check-ups. But, she says, “I went from quite fine to nearly dead in 30 minutes.”
Because of her nursing background, Williams knew the early signs of a heart attack – pain in the neck, jaw, back and arms, nausea, sweating, shortness of breath and lightheadedness. Her husband got her to the nearest hospital quickly where doctors were able to resuscitate her and insert a stent into her heart.
After a period of rest, Williams made the trip home and got her general practitioner to refer her to a cardiac rehabilitation program (designed specifically for women) at Women’s College Hospital to continue her journey back to health.
Misdiagnoses in women
Fortunately, Williams received proper treatment from her doctors in England, however, there is a lack of recognition for the significant differences in the way men and women exhibit symptoms of cardiovascular disease and their risk factors.
Women tend to develop it about 10 years later than men, with post-menopause being the prime time for onset.
“We absolutely need complete equity when it comes to how we address cardiovascular disease in women,” says Dr. Paula Harvey, Head of the Division of Cardiology, Women’s College Hospital, in Toronto. “I’ve been researching cardiovascular disease for decades and we are making progress.
Yet women are still being misdiagnosed and risk factors missed.” It’s also important to note that younger women are developing the disease at an increasing rate.
“We absolutely need complete equity when it comes to how we address cardiovascular disease in women,” says Dr. Paula Harvey, Head of the Division of Cardiology, Women’s College Hospital, in Toronto. “I’ve been researching cardiovascular disease for decades and we are making progress."
Identifying risk factors
There is still much more knowledge to be gained so that women are properly monitored for the signs of heart disease. Recognizing risk factors is key. They include: a sedentary lifestyle and co-morbidity with other conditions, like autoimmune disorders such as lupus and type-2 diabetes. For example, a woman with type-2 diabetes has an eight times higher risk of heart disease than one without diabetes.
The latest findings also examine the connection between a woman’s reproductive history and an increased risk of heart disease. Researchers have determined that issues such as premature menopause, complications during pregnancy and irregular periods may be linked to heart disease.
The fact that men and women do not exhibit the same symptoms of cardiovascular disease is something that Dr. Harvey says is important to note. A woman presenting symptoms such as chest pain is sometimes thought to have a different condition like angina.
There is still some belief that cardiovascular disease is more of a man’s disease. It’s not and statistics back that up with more women than men dying because of it. Even diagnostic tools, like stress tests and ECGs, can result in false positives and inaccurate results for women, which underscores the importance of treating patients according to gender.
Knowledge is the key
Dr. Harvey is pushing for greater public awareness, increased education and more accurate diagnoses for women. “Cardiac disease is life-changing. Women must have the same access to treatment and care as men,” she says. She emphasizes that it’s crucial for women to pay heed to their symptoms, not brush them aside. As caregivers and nurturers, women often put themselves second and fail to make their own health a priority
Getting the facts about cardiovascular disease is a crucial first step in saving women’s lives. Women’s College Hospital, in partnership with Shoppers Drug Mart’s women’s health program – Shoppers LOVE YOU, is helping women stay focused on being their best, by offering two sources of expert advice on women’s health topics: womenshealthmatters.ca, Canada’s trusted source of information, news and research findings, and myhealthmatters.ca, which offers health information based on personal health priorities and an individual’s stage of life in order to help manage and improve heart health.
Today, Sue Williams, an active grandmother of four, shares her story with other women and does volunteer work with Women’s College Hospital and other organizations. She tells them, “It could happen to you. It’s important to understand your risk factors, and make the necessary life modifications to minimize them. And don’t hesitate to seek medical treatment.”