A Global Look At Women And Cardiovascular Disease

LAMC Emergency Room Director

The World Heart Federation and the World Health Organization tells us that cardiovascular disease (CVD) – heart disease and stroke – is the biggest killer of women globally, killing more women than all cancers, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined. Here are a few remarkable statistics:

Heart disease and stroke cause 8.6 million deaths among women annually– a third of all deaths in women worldwide. Of this:  3.4 million women die of ischemic heart disease; 3 million women die from stroke each year; the remainder 2.2 million women die primarily of rheumatic heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, and inflammatory heart disease.

Women in low- and middle-income countries who develop CVD are more likely to die from it than comparable women in industrialized nations. In South Africa, the proportion of CVD deaths in women aged between 35–59 years is 150% higher than that of women in the United States. In Brazil, the proportion of CVD deaths in women aged between 35–59 years is 75% higher than in US women. Women in low- and middle-income countries fare worse than men, experiencing a higher proportion of CVD deaths than men.

Women with diabetes have higher CVD mortality rates than men with diabetes.
Younger women who have a heart attack have higher mortality than men of the same age.
Women are more likely than men to become more disabled by stroke. Immediately following stroke, women are more likely to experience serious problems compared to men.

Women are less likely to be prescribed aspirin in prevention of a second attack, less likely to receive sophisticated pacemaker models and less likely to be recommended for potentially life-saving cardiac surgery.

Women do not perceive CVD as the greatest threat to their health. Young women still feel more threatened by cancer than they do by CVD.

Heart Disease Risk Factors for Women
Of course the best defense against heart disease is a strong offense. And while factors such as age and family history play a role, it is estimated that the majority of CVD deaths are due to modifiable risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, unhealthy diet, high blood pressure, obesity, or diabetes. A woman who is obese, even if physically active, increases her risk of coronary heart disease by 2.48 times, compared to a woman of normal weight. Women who engage in physical activity for less than an hour per week have 1.48 times the risk of developing coronary heart disease, compared to women who do more than three hours of physical activity per week. Women who smoke double the risk of stroke. The more cigarettes smoked, the higher the risk. Exposure to second-hand smoke increases the risk of dying from heart disease by 15 per cent in women. Women with high blood pressure have 3.5 times the risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to women with normal blood pressure.

There are steps women can take to protect their hearts. These steps include:

  • Stop smoking
  • Engage in physical exercise
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy food diet

The World Heart Federation also urges women to know their numbers – have blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels checked regularly, as high levels can place them at greater risk.

Heart Disease Symptoms in Women
While some women have no symptoms, others experience angina (dull, heavy to sharp chest pain or discomfort), pain in the neck/jaw/throat or pain in the upper abdomen or back. These may occur during rest, begin during physical activity, or be triggered by mental stress. Women are more likely to describe chest pain that is sharp, burning and more frequently have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back.

Sometimes heart disease may be silent and not diagnosed until a woman experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, an arrhythmia, or stroke. These symptoms may include:

  • Heart Attack: Chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath.
  • Arrhythmia: Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations).
  • Heart Failure: Shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen.
  • Stroke: Sudden weakness, paralysis (inability to move) or numbness of the face/arms/legs, especially on one side of the body. Other symptoms may include: confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, difficulty seeing in one or both eyes, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, loss of consciousness, or sudden and severe headache.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms it is imperative that you call 9-1-1 and proceed to the closest Emergency Room.

Women Can Conquer Heart Disease
While heart disease is a global problem there is much we can be doing individually to manage this potentially fatal health issue. Each individual should work with their personal physician to reduce their risk of becoming a heart disease statistic, and each individual should be a champion in their own home for a heart-healthy lifestyle. Women, in particular, need to be an advocate for their heart health.




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