Take Heart! The truth about heart attacks in women

Twenty years ago, only one in eight women having a heart attack were under 60. Today, that figure is one in four. So how can you stack the odds in your favour?

We women have a lot to put up with - having babies, juggling home and career, being the only member of the family who remembers birthdays or notices that the bin is full. But one thing we don't need to worry about quite as much as men is heart attack. In fact, in the last 50 years, death rates from heart disease among British women have dropped by three quarters, and they halved among women in their 50s in the last three decades of the 20th century alone.

But we can't be complacent. Heart disease still kills one in nine UK women, and nearly a million women in the UK are living with heart disease today. What's more, younger women are being affected. Twenty years ago, only one in eight women having a heart attack were under 60. Today, that figure is one in four. So how can you stack the odds in your favour?

Know what to look for

You all know the symptoms of a heart attack, right? Unbearable crushing central chest pain, like a band around your chest, and feeling sweaty and looking deathly pale? Not necessarily if you're a woman. More than two in five women who have a heart attack don't have any kind of chest discomfort, and one in three describe a sensation of 'pressure' rather than 'pain' in their chest. Instead, women are more likely to feel acutely short of breath or unusually weak or tired. They can also get upper tummy pain like indigestion that doesn't go away, or feel sick or dizzy. Of course, there are lots of other less worrying reasons for feeling tired or weak, but it's worth getting yourself checked out if the symptoms come on very suddenly or are severe.

Recovering from a heart attack - one step at a time

Getting over a heart attack completely can take months, but you'll have a rehabilitation team to help you every step of the way. While you're in hospital, they'll assess your risk factors and how you can cut your chance of another heart attack. They'll advise on building up exercise and activity levels gradually and safely. Ask about a cardiac rehabilitation programme at your local hospital. The DVLA recommends that you don't drive for four weeks after a heart attack, but you don't need to inform them if you have a standard driving licence.

Can tests tell me if I'm at risk?

High cholesterol and blood pressure are among the biggest risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Unfortunately, neither of them causes any warning symptoms, so you won't know you're affected unless you get checked out. You should get your blood pressure checked at least every five years if you're over 40, and more often if your doctor advises.

Blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medicines can dramatically cut your risks, but you do need to take them regularly. If you have side effects, speak to your GP rather than just stopping - they may be able to advise on an alternative that suits you better.

Alcohol - does it help?

I'm always hearing from my patients that red wine protects against heart disease. It might, a bit, if you're a man over 40 or a woman past the menopause. But you only need a small amount - drinking more than two to three units a day as a woman (three to four for men) can raise your risk instead. Other risks from alcohol, such as breast cancer, start to rise even at low levels (one unit a day can raise your risk of breast cancer by 7-11%). So I certainly wouldn't recommend taking up drinking for the sake of your heart.

Smoking - just don't!

The facts are clear - smoking raises your risk of dying from heart disease by a terrifying 60%. I know it's hard but there has never been more support out there in the NHS to help you quit!

Eat and walk tall

Your heart will thank you for any move towards a Mediterranean diet - more fruit and veg, less 'saturated' fat like red meat and high-fat dairy foods, more fish (especially oily fish), 'unrefined' carbohydrates like wholemeal and wholegrain foods, and regular nuts or olive oil. This diet has been proved to cut the risk of heart disease. So can regular exercise - half an hour a day of any aerobic exercise (the kind that makes you slightly breathless) will help. In fact, so will any small changes - taking the stairs rather than the lift, walking to the shops instead of taking the car or even parking at the far end of the car park!

References

http://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/heart-statistics.aspx last accessed 26th September 2013

McSweeney JC, Cody M, O'Sullivan P, et al. Women's early warning symptoms of acute myocardial infarction. Circulation. 2003;108:2619-2623.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.