Cardiovascular disease in women is ranked nearly as high as it is ranked in men, and heart disease is responsible for the cause of most deaths in adult females in Nigeria. This makes it important to emphasize the factors that truly make the heart unique among females.
Historically, the female heart has been overlooked in research, as it was wrongly believed that females were not at risk of developing heart disease. As a result, over time, women have been less likely than men to receive timely access to the care management of heart conditions.
As an advocate for preventative cardiology, I’d like to share five things every woman should be aware of to help maintain optimal heart health:
1. Women’s heart is different from Men’s heart
Gender can affect how certain risk factors impact an individual’s heart and can be a predictor of potential outcomes when heart disease is diagnosed. Here are a few key differences between the male and female heart:
After puberty, a man’s heart acquires greater muscle mass than a woman’s growth of about 15% to 30%, based on his body size. In contrast, a woman’s heart is typically ⅔ the size of a man. And a woman’s heart rate is generally faster, so her heart works harder than a man over a lifetime.
In both men and women, as they reach their later years, the heart begins to lose muscle mass and remodel itself. But men and women are prone to differing types of heart diseases as the heart ages.
2. A woman’s heart attack may have different symptoms from a man’s heart attack
In women, research shows that heart attack (myocardial infarction) does not necessarily follow the pathway of clot formation in a single blood vessel that we typically see in men. Women are more likely to be older and have diabetes when they experience a heart attack and thus are more prone to have non-classic or atypical symptoms and three-vessel disease in which the major blood vessels supplying the heart muscle are blocked or damaged.
Heart attack symptoms can vary from person, but the most common signs of a heart attack are:
- Chest pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away. It may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing
- The pain may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to your neck, jaw, back or stomach
- You may also feel sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.
Other less common symptoms include:
- A sudden feeling of anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack
- Excessive coughing or wheezing
The danger in not recognizing symptoms of cardiac distress: women may postpone getting treatment. When your heart muscle is in distress, time is muscle! Every second you wait means additional destruction to the heart, so it’s imperative to call and seek medical attention, without delay.
The longer that treatment is delayed, the less likely the heart muscle will fully recuperate. I urge women, especially those who are older than 50 or have diabetes, to be aware of these non-typical symptoms of heart distress and head to the Emergency Department right away if you believe you could be having a heart attack.
3. Women Are More Prone to Small Vessel Disease
Women have a smaller body frame than the average man. This means their blood vessels are smaller, with a higher potential to develop small vessel disease.
The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk. Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Not doing enough physical activity
Identifying and managing risk factors early on could help lower your risk of a heart attack in the future.
4. A woman’s heart can be affected by pregnancy
Did you know that pregnancy is the most metabolically challenging thing a body can do?
Pregnancy is like a stress test for a woman’s heart. An expectant mother’s blood volume nearly triples, her blood pressure changes, and her heart size and stroke volume increase.
A normal, healthy woman is typically able to handle the physical stress that pregnancy places on her body. But if she develops health issues during pregnancy, she may find herself at higher risk of heart failure, coronary artery disease, hypertension, or diabetes later in life.
For example, if an expectant mom experiences an adverse pregnancy outcome such as high blood pressure, preterm birth, or gestational diabetes, that can alter her microvasculature even if the symptoms eventually disappear. This, in turn, can cause adverse cardiovascular changes in the heart and blood vessels putting the mother at increased risk of developing heart disease later in life.
Several risk factors for heart disease increase after menopause. Weight gain and lack of physical activity are more commonplace in post-menopausal women, which can affect the condition of the heart.
Particularly around the time of menopause itself, blood pressure may spike as well, even in women who’ve always had normal or low blood pressure. Other emerging risk factors for women’s heart disease include early menopause and depression.
Prevention is Important
If you have a family history of heart or circulatory disease, make sure you tell your doctor or nurse.
Seek preventative care from a cardiologist such as myself, particularly if there is a family history of heart disease and Know your numbers (cholesterol, blood pressure etc)
Adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. Make yourself a priority. Consume a diet that’s enjoyable but healthy and nutritious. Get moderate-to-high-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week. Reduce stress. And be sure to get adequate, restful sleep.