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Heart disease and women: Should you be concerned?

What illness is the number one killer of Canadian women 55 years old and over? The answer is heart disease.

women walking and talking

Heart disease is often silent, giving no warning before it strikes. For example, hypertension (high blood pressure) has no symptoms. As blood pressure rises, over time it causes damage to the blood vessels, often resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

Women at risk

Although any woman can develop heart disease, some are at a higher risk than others. Risk factors include the following:

Health Canada has also identified that black and South Asian women have higher chances of developing heart disease.
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle (inactivity)
  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Low levels of education
  • Low socio-economic status

The good news

The good news is that many of the risk factors for heart disease are lifestyle related and can be changed. Of course, changing several aspects can be hard and might seem daunting, so keep in mind that removing just one risk factor is helpful and that not everything must be done at once.

For example, if you smoke, are overweight and not very physically active, nothing says you have to stop smoking, go on a diet and join a gym all at the same time. A better idea would be to pick one of the behaviours to work on. If eating better is your first goal, then that is what you work to improve until you feel confident to start eliminating the second risk factor and then the third. It’s been proven that changes made gradually tend to stick better than radical makeovers.

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The not-so-good news

The not-so-good news is that certain risk factors, such as age, menopause, race and family background, can’t be changed. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. If your risk factors for heart disease can’t be changed, what you can do is be more vigilant about your health. This means maintaining a healthy lifestyle and medical supervision — visiting your doctor regularly, following treatment plans and not ignoring any signs that might indicate heart problems.

Signs of a heart attack

The most serious thing that can happen to your heart is a heart attack, where parts of the heart muscle die. If it is severe enough, the heart will stop (cardiac arrest).

Women don’t always have the same types of symptoms as men. Many women, after having a heart attack, say they never really felt any chest pain. If you experience any of the following symptoms, seek help as soon as possible:

If you feel this way, call 911 or get someone to drive you to the hospital. Do not try to drive yourself.
  • Fatigue that worsens with activity
  • Generalized weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heartburn not relieved by antacids
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Tightening and pain in the chest, neck, jaw and/or shoulders
  • Losing colour (pale)
  • Sweating

Heart disease can be frightening, but for many women, lifestyle changes or some extra vigilance can mean the difference between life and death.

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More heart health info

4 Heart health tips for women
Heart attacks in women: Protecting yourself
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