Heart disease isn't just a problem that affects men - it's just as important to recognise the heart attack symptoms in women and discover how to stay healthy, too.
We’re constantly reminded about our breast health and how to check for changes, but important as that is, what most of us don’t realise is that we’re more likely to die from a heart attack than we are from breast cancer.
The statistics around female heart health are staggering – 69,000 women have a heart attack in Britain each year, leading to 28,000 deaths (that's double the amount that die from breast cancer).
According to a new report from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), many of these deaths are preventable with a proper diagnosis and treatment. However, some women are missing out, as more than 8,000 women died between 2002 and 2013 in England and Wales because they did not receive the same standard of care as men following a heart attack.
Associate medical director of the BHF Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan said, “Heart attacks have never been more treatable. Yet women are dying needlessly because heart attacks are often seen as a man’s disease, and women don’t receive the same standard of treatment as men.”
The charity found that common misconceptions about heart disease and heart attacks, including that they only affect men, meant that women were not seeking help as quickly as they should.
“Public understanding of women and heart attacks is beset by misperceptions," the report claimed. "These are dangerous when they mean a woman doesn’t recognise the symptoms of her heart attack and delays seeking and receiving medical help.
“That is why we need to raise awareness of heart attack among women: the longer treatment for a heart attack is delayed, the greater the chance of permanent damage to the heart. Worldwide, coronary heart disease is the single biggest killer of women.”
Why is heart health a risk for women?
According to the BHF, British women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed after having a heart attack than men, which increases their chance of death.
Along with substandard care, women are also slow to seek out medical help, which lowers the chances of survival.
Heart attacks pose a higher risk to women, as high blood pressure increases their risk of having a heart attack 80% more than men.
Type 2 diabetes can also increase a woman's chance of having a heart attack by 50%.
It's not just women in the UK who are missing out on vital medical care. Professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Leeds Chris Gale said, ‘This problem is not unique to the UK – studies across the globe have also revealed gender gaps in treatment, suggesting this is a deeply entrenched and complex issue.
"On their own, the differences in care are very small, but when we look at this across the population of the UK, it adds up to a significant loss of life. We can do better."
Do you know the heart attack symptoms in women?
The BHF state that while symptoms may differ from person to person, women and men experience similar symptoms while having a heart attack, although women are less likely to be aware of them and seek help.
Common heart attack symptoms in women
- Extreme fatigue (that has lasted days or even weeks)
- Pain in your upper back, shoulders, neck and jaw
- Profuse sweating
- A sudden feeling of anxiety, similar to a panic attack
- Excessive coughing or wheezing
- Feeling light-headed
These symptoms can often be dismissed as indigestion, inflammation of the cartilage around your rib or gallstones, so it may take a while for women to seek help. But by the time they reach hospital, they may have suffered significant heart damage. So if you experience any of the above, head straight to A&E.
Staying heart healthy: how to adapt your lifestyle
So what can we do to ensure that we keep our hearts healthy? Philippa Hobson, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, advises how to look after your heart.
Make time for your NHS Health Check
If you live in England and are aged between 40 and 74, it’s important you get your Health Check at your GP surgery. It’s free and designed to assess your risk of stroke, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and kidney disease. The 20-minute test involves checking your blood pressure, pulse and cholesterol, and discussing your lifestyle and family history of medical conditions.
Exercise when you can
Don’t feel you have the time? Incorporate it into your daily life. If you commute to work, get off the bus a stop early or park your car further away and walk the extra distance. Ideally, aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise a week – break it down into 10-minute chunks if that’s easier.
Don’t fall victim to ‘silent killers’
Risk factors for heart and circulatory disease, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, don’t usually have symptoms. Don’t wait until you feel unwell to get tested. Diagnosed early, they’re easily monitored and treated.
Look after yourself
If you’re a smoker, quitting is the best thing you can do for your heart. Cut down on fatty and salty foods, and eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of different coloured fruit and veg.
For more information on how to look after your heart health, visit bhf.org.uk.
And remember to always be aware of the signs.