Heart Disease & Women’s Health

Heart Disease had traditionally been thought of as a man’s disease. The image of a man clutching his chest has been commonly known as the trademark sign of a heart attack.

The fact is however that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women worldwide. In Canada, it accounts for more deaths in women than all the cancers combined. Why is that?

Let’s talk about Risk Factors

Risk factors are the elements that increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. There are risk factors known as non – modifiable risks which are elements we have no control over.

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Family History

These factors increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but you can’t do anything to change them. – Non – modifiable

Then there are risk factors we can impact known as modifiable risks:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Stress
  • Activity Level
  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol

The tricky part here is only about half (56%) of women recognize heart disease as a potential health concern. So as we know to wear sunscreen, and watch our moles & freckles for anything odd to protect ourselves from skin cancer, we don’t always think of our potential risk for heart disease with the same level of attention.

This in part has been because of our education. As far as cardiovascular disease is concerned women as a whole have been under-studied, under-diagnosed, and under-treated, hence part of the reason the death rates are so high. This means our “education” in terms of symptoms to watch out for, or how each of those risk factors listed above impacts us as women, has been based on what we know about men. And as we know… men & women are uniquely different!

Let’s talk about Symptoms

The classic symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Chest pain, heaviness, tightness
  • Radiating pain down one or both arms
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual or extreme Fatigue

Women may get any or all of these symptoms listed above. However women will often experience symptoms completely different such as:

  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Neck, jaw, throat pain
  • Anxiety
  • Weakness
  • Flu like symptoms
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Sleep difficulties

Just to be clear, men may get these symptoms as well, however most commonly these symptoms have been experienced by women. The point is to be mindful of how you feel. Don’t brush off feelings of being unwell. Go and get checked!

So far I have discussed the symptoms of a heart attack. The fact is however, there is a lot we can do to help prevent a heart attack from even occurring in the first place.

  1. Understand Your Risk – Yes… understand that cardiovascular disease does not discriminate. Women – you need to take notice of your risk factors listed above. Talk to your doctor, understand your risk and make a plan.
    1. Check your blood pressure – If your blood pressure is above 140/90 if you have no other health conditions… or above 130/80 if you have diabetes… discuss treatment options.
    2. Check your cholesterol numbers – This can get complicated based on your history. Please get your blood work done and talk to your doctor.
    3. Obesity & Diabetes are medical conditions, just like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Talk to your doctor for support or reach out to professionals to help! (Like us!)
  2. Take Action! – Get informed, get active and reach out for support. There is a lot that you CAN do to prevent cardiovascular disease… it is time to take action to reduce your risk factors.

Advocating for Women’s Heart Health

As we now understand, part of the reason heart disease has had a tremendous impact on women is that we ourselves, as well as the practitioners we go to for help, are not recognizing our symptoms or proactively seeking or prescribing proper treatment. This has been due to research & education lagging behind on studies directly looking at women.

How can you help? A simple way to get started is to begin to research on your own. A fantastic site is https://cwhhc.ottawaheart.ca. Get informed and share the information with those you care about. Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have, and have them do a risk factor assessment.

Another way to get involved is to join us on Feb. 13th/ 2022 with Wear Red Canada. Wear red that day, talk to people about why you are wearing red, perhaps take a picture of yourself and share it, if you are on social media you can perhaps share your photo there with the hashtag #herheartmatters.

Let’s make a positive change.

If you have any questions please let us know!
We are happy to help!

Pulse Cardiac Health
Improving Heart Health – One heart at a time.

Shawna Cook

Shawna is a Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine, who has been working in Cardiac Rehabilitation for over 10 years. Her years in the health and fitness field however have spanned over the past 2+ decades. As an elite level athlete she fell in love with understanding the human body, and how the choices she made, affected how it performed. This led to a degree from the University of Winnipeg in the stream of Athletic Therapy, and the passion towards helping others recover from injury and "be their best selves" grew.