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Listen to your heart: symptoms of heart disease in women

Every month, a health expert from Women's College Hospital answers a question about a health issue that's in the news or on women's minds. This month: heart disease symptoms and prevention for women.

February 2012

Despite being once considered a ‘man’s disease,’ heart disease is the leading cause of death in Canadian women. The term heart disease encompasses a group of conditions including heart attack, angina, heart failure and many more, all of which affect the structure and function of the heart.

For heart month, Women’s Health Matters asked Jennifer Price, an advanced practice nurse with the Women’s Cardiovascular Health Initiative at Women’s College Hospital, for information on the differences in heart disease symptoms between men and women, and tips for maintaining heart health.

Listen to your heart

Price explains that heart attack symptoms can be classified as either typical or atypical. Typical symptoms include:

  • mid-chest crushing or painful feeling during periods of exertion
  • pain lasting 15 minutes or more
  • pain in the jaw or left arm
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • shortness of breath
  • light-headedness

Many women with heart attack experience more subtle or atypical symptoms. Atypical symptoms have been described as the following:

  • unusual fatigue
  • feelings of discomfort or squeezing in the chest
  • mid-shoulder back pain
  • sudden feeling of slowing down or weakness
  • symptoms occur at rest or with stress

Whereas men’s first indication of heart disease is a heart attack, women’s heart disease often begins with warning signs. Women may complain of fatigue, chest discomfort, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances or feeling like they are “slowing down” for a period of time before they have a heart event.  Their symptoms can be vague and as a result, women are less likely to seek medical attention. Price advises that we visit the emergency room or call an ambulance if experiencing either typical or atypical symptoms for 15 minutes or longer.

“Research has shown that women have poorer outcomes following a heart attack or heart surgery than men,” explains Price. They report more symptoms and have a higher death rate following heart attack or heart surgery than men. “Women need to understand that they are just as likely as men to experience heart disease.”

Look after your heart

It is important for women to understand their risk factors and recognize the warning signs so that they can avoid the threat of heart disease. Price offers two pieces of advice on maintaining a healthy heart:

1.       Know your risk

“Diagnosis is an important aspect of heart health,” advises Price. Attending your regular physical is a key preventive measure, as your doctor can test for known risk factors. Recognizing and monitoring factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes is an important defence against heart disease. Other risk factors include:

  • sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking
  • family history of heart disease
  • stress
  • an unbalanced diet
  • age/menopause

2.       Address your risk factors

Heart attack is typically a disease of older women. “After menopause, women don’t have the same hormonal protection and their risk increases,” Price explains. However, trends are changing. “We are beginning to see younger women experiencing heart disease.” Price suggests that women are now leading more stressful lives, which may increase the risk of heart disease.

Maintaining a healthy heart begins with addressing your risk factors and treating them.

“It’s all about lifestyle,” says Price. Engaging in regular activity, eating well, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and managing stress are all ways we can protect ourselves from heart disease.


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