It’s a shame to have to say it, but researchers don’t know as much about women’s heart health as they should. And it really couldn’t be a more important subject. After all, heart health is a life or death situation. But it’s actually considered “under-researched” in the scientific community. In fact, two thirds of clinical research on heart disease focuses on men.
But we have good news: we’ve compiled some of that research into one neat package right here. Hopefully, it will help you keep yourself and the women in your life as heart healthy as possible. And a big part of that is how to avoid a heart attack, and how to spot the symptoms if one occurs.
Are heart attacks more common in women?
For many, it may be surprising to know just how common heart attacks and heart disease can be among women. Consider these eye-opening stats:
- For Canadian women, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of premature death
- If a woman has a heart attack, she’s more likely to die from it, or suffer a second one, compared to men
- Heart attack symptoms go unrecognized in 53% of women
- 1/3 more women die of stroke than men in Canada
- Heart disease is more deadly than breast cancer, taking the lives of 5 times more women
No stat is more eye opening than that last one. Breast cancer is much more in the public eye than women’s heart health, and it’s no less important a topic. And yet heart disease takes more lives.
How can you keep your heart healthy?
Now that we know just how serious an issue this is, it’s important to know what you can do to keep your heart as healthy as possible. And, while it’s true that everyone has a heart, it’s also important to know that women’s heart health is different from men’s.
Heart issues in young women: During childbearing years, women have increased estrogen levels. This helps prevent cholesterol buildup in your arteries, which can decrease your risk of developing heart disease. However, when pregnant, a woman can develop pregnancy-related diabetes or high blood pressure, which can put you at increased risk for heart disease.
To help your heart health at a younger age, you can:
- Keep an eye on it: Especially if you experienced one of those pregnancy-related conditions we just mentioned, keep on top of it with your doctor and keep a close eye on your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
- Eat right: It’s never too early to start a heart-healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains.
- Work on your fitness: Most experts recommend 150 minutes of exercise per week in bursts of at least 10 minutes at a time to keep your cardiovascular system in shape.
- Don’t smoke: Don’t start smoking, and if you currently smoke, try to quit as soon as possible, while you’re younger and less damage has been done.
Signs of heart attack in women over 40: As your estrogen levels decrease during and after menopause, your risk of heart disease increases.
At this age, you can continue to practice the tips above, but here are some additional age-specific tips:
- Avoid estrogen pills: Even though natural estrogen can aid heart health, in pill form it can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and other conditions. However, in some special cases, your doctor may prescribe estrogen pills to relieve menopause symptoms or aid with vaginal, ovarian or bone-related issues.
- Talk to your doctor: Have your doctor assess your personal risk factor for heart disease. They may recommend anything from sticking to a healthy lifestyle, to taking aspirin, or recommending stronger medicinal or lifestyle options.
Signs of heart attack in women over 60: Unfortunately, 71% of women at this age experience some form of heart disease. But you can still reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Here are some plans of action:
- Keep active and eating right: As you age, these habits become more and more important. And it’s never too late to start.
- Laugh with friends and family: It’s no joke that laughter is the best medicine. It can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
- Be hyper aware: Really keep a close eye on risk factors, both on your own and with your doctor. And of course, be aware of the symptoms.
And that brings us to our next point…
What are the common symptoms of a heart attack in women?
Here are the key symptoms for women:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweats
- Loss of appetite
- Intense fatigue
- Jaw or neck pain
- A general sense of discomfort
Many of these symptoms are not typically associated with heart attacks, so if you’re not aware of them, it can be easy for them to go unnoticed – or at least not consider them heart attack symptoms when you’re experiencing them. Many of these symptoms also occur while women are resting or sleeping. So it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and talk to your doctor about whether or not they could be associated with your heart health.
Why are women’s heart attack symptoms different?
Just as for men, the most common symptom of a heart attack for women is pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But many women don’t experience chest pain at all during a heart attack: 42% don’t. So while it’s still important for women to look out for that, it’s equally important to know that many of the symptoms of a heart attack for women are actually different from those for men. In fact, it may be surprising to know that women don’t even need to have blocked arteries for a heart attack to occur, so it’s understandable that the symptoms may be different.
Go after heart health with all your heart!
Since heart disease is the No. 1 cause of premature death among Canadian women, heart health should be at the top of everyone’s mind. Hopefully some of the tips and symptoms we’ve provided can help put your mind at ease, help you be more proactive about your heart health, and encourage you to get medical help as soon as you feel you need it.
At Manulife, we’ve put our hearts into women’s heart health, as a founding partner of Heart & Stroke’s Women’s Initiative, which raises awareness and donations for equitable heart research. Since the beginning of our partnership in 2019, we’ve helped Heart & Stroke raise over $5 million for this important cause. We hope you put all of your heart into your heart health, too!
HeartAndStroke.ca, “What every woman should know about heart disease,” February 1, 2018.
HeartAndStroke.ca, “Ms. Understood: Women’s hearts are victims of a system that is ill-equipped to diagnose, treat and support them,” 2017.
EverydayHealth.com, “Women: Heart Health in Your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s,” May 11, 2018.
OttawaHeart.ca, “Women & Heart Disease,” (no date given).
MayoClinic.org, “Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke,” April 5, 2019.
MayoClinic.org, “Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors,” October 4, 2019.