Her heart matters: New report shows risks to women’s heart health
A new Heart & Stroke report shares that gaps in awareness, research, diagnosis and care threaten women's heart and brain health. Heart disease and stroke claimed the lives of 32,271 women in Canada in 2019 – one woman's life every 16 minutes.
Dr. Tara Sedlak, Director of the Leslie Diamond Women's Heart Health Clinic at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) and researcher with the Centre for Cardiovascular Innovation says the report System failure: Healthcare inequities continue to leave women's heart and brain health behind plays an important role in raising awareness about the unique factors in women's heart health.
“This report is crucial for highlighting numerous inequities between men and women in the field of heart disease, starting with risk factors and presenting symptoms to diagnoses, causes and treatments," says Dr. Sedlak, who also founded women's heart health initiative Wear Red Day Canada.
System failure reports that heart disease is on the rise and is the leading cause of death for women worldwide. Despite this, half of women who experience heart attacks have their symptoms go unrecognized, and they are less likely than men to receive the treatments and medications they need or get them in a timely way.
Women's distinct risk factors
According to the report, women face distinct risk factors for heart disease and stroke – and at different points in their lives including pregnancy and menopause. Additionally, as they age, women acquire cardiovascular risk factors at a faster rate than men.
Risk also increases when various intersecting and overlapping factors are indicated, such as race, ethnicity, Indigeneity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, geography, body size and ability.
Societal gender role expectations can create further barriers to care and support as women tend to prioritize the health needs of their family over their own, take on greater caregiver responsibilities and have more challenges advocating for themselves.
Heart disease in women is different than men
Certain types of heart conditions are more common in women, and women can be impacted differently by heart disease and stroke. Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) is a common cause of heart attacks in younger women and during pregnancy or following childbirth. Patients with SCAD do not have the standard risk factors for cholesterol-types of heart attacks.
VCH cardiologist Dr. Jacqueline Saw has led ground-breaking SCAD research resulting in increased diagnoses nationally and internationally, and has established a SCAD registry.
Dr. Saw stresses the importance of women of all ages knowing heart disease's risks and symptoms.
“Women should be aware that heart disease can also affect young women and those without traditional cardiovascular risk factors," says Dr. Saw. “They should seek medical care promptly if they develop symptoms of heart attack."
What can you do?
Know the symptoms
Women's heart disease presents differently than men's. Women having a heart attack may have:
Jaw pain – can be a sign of angina
Shortness of breath
Tightness in chest
If symptoms are persistent, severe or worrisome, call 9-1-1.
Take these steps to prevent heart disease
Exercise your heart: work out three to five times a week, for 20 to 30 minutes a session
Eat a well-balanced diet
Get a good night's sleep
Try to reduce stress
Include heart health in your overall medical check-ups after age 40, including having your cholesterol monitored and your heart checked.
Dr. Sedlak stresses the importance of speaking to your doctor if you suspect something is wrong.
“Pay attention to your body. Listen to that voice in your head telling you something isn't right," she says. “It's really important that women develop a good relationship with their doctor and advocate for themselves."
Get involved: Wear Red Canada Day – February 13
According to the latest Heart & Stroke national polling data, nearly 40 per cent of people in Canada do not realize that heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of premature death in women, yet 75 per cent think we should be more concerned about women's heart and brain health.
Dr. Sedlak has been a long-time champion of raising awareness about women's heart disease and founded Wear Red Day Canada. Since 2019, Dr. Sedlak has led the national initiative encouraging Canadians to have conversations about heart health and wellness.
“We encourage everyone to get curious about heart health and wellness." said Dr. Sedlak. “What does heart health look like for women? For you? And what can we all do to support our own heart health and that of our loved ones?"
Here's how you can participate and raise awareness of women's heart health matters on Wear Red Day:
Wear red on February 13.
Join the conversation in person and on social media using #HerHeartMatters.
Attend the free Wear Red Day event:
Learn more. Visit WearRedCanada.ca for information.