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).
For decades, doctors and patients have thought of heart disease and heart attacks as something that predominantly affects overweight, middle-aged men. But now reports show that if they lead an unhealthy lifestyle, women’s risk of having a heart attack is significantly more elevated than men’s.
Why is heart health a risk for women?
Scientists writing in the British Medical Journal believe that despite the elevated risks, women are still receiving worse care than men. Women with diabetes, for example, are 15% less likely than men with the same condition to receive the recommended level of care. And British women are 50% more likely than men to have a heart attack initially misdiagnosed, as heart attack symptoms in women are less well-known and can be more subtle.
But it’s not just the medical experts that are to blame.
“Heart attacks just don’t receive enough publicity,” explains Dr Foster. “We’re eating worse and exercising less, which is raising our LDL (bad) cholesterol and pushing up our blood pressure, which is all adding to the risk.”
Plus, women themselves still see heart disease as a typically male condition. And there’s even the idea that it’s not something women can develop.
Part of the problem is that male heart attack indicators, which are well documented, can differ from lesser-known female symptoms.
“Women do not present in the same way as men,” explains Dr Foster. “They don’t often have typical left-sided chest pain that ‘classic’ heart attack patients get.”
Do you know the heart attack symptoms in women?
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
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.