Julie Ward, a Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, explains how vital it is for women to look after their hearts – and themselves.
Did you know that every day, women are needlessly dying of heart attacks in the UK due to the misperception that heart disease is a man’s disease
The reality is that coronary heart disease (CHD), which is the main cause of heart attacks, kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK every year.
There are more than 800,000 women in the UK living with CHD, and 35,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack in the country each year – an average of 98 women per day, or four per hour.
Exactly why this condition is still perceived as a male disease is complex and deeply ingrained in society. However, it means that women may be dramatically underestimating their risk of having a heart attack.
This could be because many people think heart attack symptoms in women are different from those in men. This is a myth, and while symptoms can vary from person to person, research funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has shown that women experience the same key heart attack symptoms as men.
That’s why it’s important to know the most common signs of a heart attack. These include chest pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away, which may feel like pressure, tightness, or squeezing. The pain may spread to your left or right arm, or to your neck, jaw, back, or stomach, and you may also feel sick, sweaty, light-headed, or short of breath.
However, we know that women may be less likely to seek medical attention and treatment quickly, despite the warning signs. Women typically arrive at the hospital later than men when they have a heart attack, which contributes to delays in receiving treatment. Rapid treatment is essential, and the aim is to restore blood flow to the affected part of the heart muscle as soon as possible. This helps to limit the amount of damage to the heart.
If you think you’re having a heart attack, you must call 999 for an ambulance immediately. Every minute matters and delaying this crucial step could dramatically reduce your chance of survival.
There are also steps you can take now to reduce your risk of having a heart attack. Key risk factors for a heart attack include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, being overweight, and not doing enough physical activity. By identifying and managing these risk factors early, you could prevent a heart attack in the future.
Lifestyle changes like eating a healthy balanced diet low in saturated fat, getting active, and quitting smoking are all great ways of boosting your heart health. Knowing your cholesterol and blood pressure readings and taking measures to maintain healthy levels can also help you manage your own risk.
Other factors can put women at greater risk of developing heart and circulatory conditions. Many people who go to the hospital with a heart attack and stroke say they never thought they were at risk, despite having close relatives affected by the conditions. If you have a family history of heart and circulatory diseases, then make sure you tell your doctor or nurse.
The menopause can also affect your heart. During and after the menopause, a woman’s body gradually produces less oestrogen than it used to. This increases the risk of the coronary arteries narrowing, whereas it previously protected the lining of the artery walls reducing the build-up of plaque. This increases your risk of developing coronary heart disease, or a circulatory condition such as stroke.
If you are over the age of 40 and live in England, you can benefit from a free NHS health check. This check can highlight anything that could put you at increased risk of having a heart attack. The health check usually takes place at your GP surgery and your healthcare professional will check your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and talk to you about your lifestyle. Based on the results, they’ll give you practical advice about keeping healthy. You can contact your local GP to find out more, whilst some pharmacies and other parts of the UK offer a similar service.
We also know that more must be done to ensure that women who have a heart attack receive the same care and treatment as men. A recent BHF-funded study showed that, even with an improved diagnosis of heart attacks for women using a sex-specific blood test, women were half as likely as men to receive recommended heart attack treatments. Another study funded by the BHF found that, over a ten-year period, more than 8,200 women died needlessly following a heart attack – and they could have been saved if they had received the same quality of care as men.
Inequalities in the way women with heart attacks are cared for compared to men are costing lives, and this must be addressed.
Although this won’t be fixed overnight, closing the gender gap must start with addressing the misconception that heart disease is a male health issue, and empowering women to recognise symptoms and better understand their risk. We must also tackle gender-based inequalities and guard against unconscious biases that could contribute to them. This could improve the care and treatment for the thousands of women who have a heart attack in the UK each year, and ultimately help save more lives.
To find out more about the British Heart Foundation, including ways to support the charity, visit bhf.org.uk.