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Heart Disease in Women: Know the Difference

Discussing the gender gap in Cardiovascular disease with Consultant Cardiologist, Dr Matthew Kahn

heart disease in women

Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women worldwide. The World Health Organisation describes the disease as killing an estimated 17.9 million people each year, an estimated 31% of all deaths worldwide.

The alarming reality is that most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing day to day lifestyle and behavioural risk factors, such as physical inactivity, excessive alcohol intake, unhealthy diet and smoking. However, a significant number of women are unaware of their own risk factors and how heart disease presents itself in women differently to men.

Public surveys from leading hospitals have shown that many women fail to identify heart disease as the leading cause of female deaths. Instead, surveys have shown that breast cancer is typically identified as the number one cause, probably due to the success of breast cancer awareness campaigns.

In the USA, 1 in every 5 female deaths is caused by heart disease. According to the Texas Heart Institute, “heart attacks are generally more severe in women than in men. In the first year after a heart attack, women are more than 50% more likely to die than men are.”

While in the UK, the British Heart Foundation says that “coronary heart disease kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK every year, and is the single biggest killer of women worldwide. Despite this, it’s often considered a man’s disease.”

To learn more about heart disease in women, Medical Travel Market got in touch with Dr Matthew Kahn, a leading Consultant Cardiologist in Manchester (United Kingdom), who specializes in heart failure and complex device therapy.

How does Heart disease in women differ to men?

All women face the threat of heart disease. Generally, we find that women are affected by coronary heart disease at a later age than men. This could be due to a variety of reasons such as the potential protective benefit of female hormones such as oestrogen. After the menopause, there seems to be a gradual increase in cardiac risk. It is vital after the menopause to identify and manage risk factors aggressively (such as insulin resistance, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, healthy lifestyle). For the most part, the treatment of heart disease in women and men is similar and includes various medications, angioplasty and stenting or coronary artery bypass surgery.

What are the unique symptoms that women experience?

The most common symptom for men and women experiencing angina or a heart attack is chest pain. Women are more likely to have ‘non-typical’ presentations with symptoms such as neck, jaw, abdominal discomfort, breathlessness, nausea or vomiting, unusual fatigue or indigestion. Such symptoms may be vague and not as obvious as the crushing chest pain usually described. Women also tend to have symptoms occurring at rest compared to men, and emotional stress can also play a role in triggering symptoms. Because of these atypical presentations, women may not recognize their symptoms as those suspicious of a heart attack and so may present ‘late’ to the hospital.

Heart and vascular diseases develop slowly over time, and for this reason, cardiovascular disease is often called a ‘silent killer’. Women need to take good care of their hearts throughout life and not only in old age. A great place to start is by self-evaluating behavioural and lifestyle choices and taking positive steps towards a healthier heart.

World Heart Day takes place on 29 September 2020, and we’re asking all our readers to raise awareness about heart health… for your loved ones, society and you.

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