Did you know that heart disease is the second highest cause of death for Canadian women?
Because I know you’re wondering, the first is cancer. But because we are in the midst of heart month, and because women’s risks and symptoms are generally talked about less, this post will focus on the unique factors that make our hearts susceptible.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, most women have at least one risk factor for heart disease present in their everyday life, with those who have diabetes, those who come from certain ethnic backgrounds, and those who are menopausal all elevated at an even higher risk.
So what are the risk factors you need to know about?
Well one prominent factor in women’s heart health is estrogen. For as long as women are still in their ‘reproductive cycle’ (post first period, and pre menopause), estrogen continues to cast a protective spell over our heart health, and our risk of heart disease is relatively low. However, these protective effects can be broken in certain circumstances detailed below.
Birth control pills (oral contraceptives)
Oral contraceptives today are a heck of a lot safer than they used to be, but they don’t affect everyone equally. The Heart and Stroke Foundation says that for women under the age of 35 who are non-smokers, birth control pills don’t pose a heart disease threat. However, there are exceptions within this group if you have high blood pressure, and they increase significantly if you smoke.
A pregnancy involves a lot of changes in a woman’s body, and during this time it’s possible to develop certain conditions, such as Pre-Enclampsia or Gestational Diabetes, which may increase vulnerability of heart disease or stroke.
Menopause, which occurs when a woman’s body stops having menstrual cycles, presents a heart disease risk because it means that your body has greatly reduced the amount of estrogen and progesterone that was previously protecting your heart. When a woman is right before or after menopause, she may experience:
- An increase in total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and triglyceride levels, and a decrease in HDL cholesterol (the good kind).
- An increase in blood pressure.
- A rise in central body fat, which can make you more vulnerable to blood clots and blood sugar problems.
One way that estrogen protects your heart is by keeping your cholesterol levels in a healthy range. Once you enter menopause, your natural estrogen levels drop, resulting in a rise of cholesterol levels for many women. This is one reason why routine check ups at the doctor are a good idea once you enter menopause.
Triglycerides are a type of fat that is actually most common in the body. Having a high level of triglycerides is often a result of having high levels of LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, and low levels of HDL ‘good’ cholesterol. Research has shown that having high triglycerides may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, so it could be a good idea to talk to your doctor about your risk.
How can I manage these risk factors?
We can control many of the risk factors that can make us vulnerable to heart disease and stroke, but there are unfortunately certain risk factors that can’t be managed and must simply be monitored.
Risk factors that you can control include:
- Becoming and remaining smoke-free
- Achieving a healthy body weight
- Being physically active for at least 150 minutes per week
- Eating a balanced, healthy diet that is low in processed foods, and high in whole, fresh foods.
Risk factors that you can’t control include:
- Family history
Many people also don’t know that heart attack symptoms are different in women than in men.
We’ve all seen the heart attack scenes in movies where a man begins to gasp, clutches his chest, and falls to the ground–and we assume that he’s having a heart attack. But heart attacks in women often reveal themselves through much subtler symptoms, which results in circumstances where a woman may not even know she’s having a heart attack. The American Heart Association lists the following heart attack signs as being common in women:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the centre of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
The bottom line is that heart disease affects women just as much as it affects men, but women have a unique set of factors that not everyone knows about. Heart month exists as a way to emphasize the importance of heart health, so take the time this month to find out how you can take care of this vital organ. Happy heart month!
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