Time to end the misconception that heart disease is a man’s disease

Heart disease is the biggest killer of women in Australia

6 April 2022

In fact, 22 women lose their lives to heart disease every day. We speak to the Institute’s Professor Livia Hool for the latest advice on what women can do to take care of the heart health.

Heart disease takes three times more lives than breast cancer. Yet most women are aware of the warning signs of breast cancer, and we have national screening programs in place, women are far less likely to be aware of the risks and symptoms of heart disease. They still think it’s unlikely to happen to them but as the recent death of Senator Kimberly Kitching shows, it can strike any of us.>

Are there risk factors for heart disease unique to women?

Many of the main risk factors for heart diseases are the same for both men and women. Eating well, quitting cigarettes, engaging in regular exercise, and cutting back on alcohol will help reduce risk of heart disease for all people.

But even if you do all of the above, you may still be at risk of suffering a heart attack or developing heart disease because there are other risk factors at play – some of which play a greater role in the onset of heart disease in women than men.

Obesity and Diabetes in Women

Research has revealed that women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart failure than men and we know that the risk of heart disease for women rises after menopause.

Being obese also increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 64% in women when compared with 46% in men according to a 2020 study in Nature.

It’s shocking that we are only finding out these differences now. They are only becoming apparent because we are finally starting to address the gender bias in medical research.

Genetics in the role of women and heart disease

We also know that family history plays a huge role in your risk of developing heart disease – which is down to your genetics.

Whilst we can screen at-risk family members and put them on preventative treatments if needed, we know that we are missing many people, which is why it’s important we get our risk examined professionally.

At what age should women have their heart health checked?

Heart Health Checks are provided by GPs to women aged 45 or over, or over 30 if they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent and are covered by Medicare.

You’ll have your blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels checked followed by a discussion about your lifestyle. This information is collated to analyse your risk of having a heart attack within the next five years, which can be a lifesaver as there are so many things that can be done to reduce your risk – including making lifestyle changes and being put on preventative treatments.

Given the increasing levels of obesity, diabetes as well as spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) heart attacks affecting younger women, we’d support rolling out these tests for people in their 30s, or even in their 20s.

What are the most common signs a woman is having a heart attack?

Only one in three women will experience a typical heart attack symptom such as pain in the center of the chest. Instead, many women have different signs from men.

Women often experience pain in their neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal pain and describe this pain as tightness rather than the crushing pain more normally associated with a heart attack.

Other signs can include shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, and dizziness.

We need to better communicate these subtle but very important differences to women, so they seek help as early as possible.

Top five tips for preventing heart disease

  1. Have your heart health checked regularly
  2. Eat a healthy diet rich in pulses, vegetables, good fats, and cut back on red meat so you can maintain a healthy weight - data shows that being obese is a bigger driving factor for developing heart disease in women than in men.
  3. Don’t smoke
  4. Know your family history – and make sure your GP is aware of it
  5. Keep active – you don’t need to run a marathon – research has shown that if you take more than 7000 steps a day you’ll have a 50-70 % lower risk of dying than those doing under 7000.
Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years