What you need to know today
Listening time: 2 mins 30
Listening time: 2 mins 30
Dying from breast cancer is a very common fear for women, but in reality, it is cardiovascular disease that poses a far greater threat.
Cardiovascular disease – which includes heart attack, heart failure and stroke – kills more than four times as many women than breast cancer, and is the number-one cause of death of women in Australia.
Yes – you read that right. Cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer of women in Australia.
Hollywood hasn’t done female heart health any favours.
In movies and on TV, the characters who have heart attacks are almost always male, white and working in a high-powered job. Storylines of women with heart disease are few and far between – and this is one reason why heart disease is often misunderstood as a male-only problem.
On top of this, real heart attacks can look and feel very differently to how they’re presented on screen. Symptoms such as chest pain can range from mild to severe, they can last several minutes, or they can come and go.
In fact, many people are able to go about their day while unknowingly having a heart attack, all the while causing significant damage to their heart muscle and cardiovascular system.
Rather than the chest pain men often feel, women may experience breathlessness, nausea, back pain, jaw pain, tightness or discomfort in the arms, shortness of breath or a general feeling of being unwell.
Women can feel pain or discomfort in the centre of the chest when having a heart attack, but not always.
That’s why it’s important to know all the symptoms of a heart attack and recognise that, for women, it often goes beyond the stereotype we see on screen.
Research shows that when women are having a heart attack, they tend to wait longer than men to call an ambulance or to go to hospital.
One study found that on average, women wait about 54 hours to seek treatment, compared with about 16 hours for men.
Researchers believe this longer delay time is because women think they are not at risk of a heart attack, or they think the symptoms are due to something less serious. There’s also evidence that women tend to put the health of others ahead of their own.
When men have chest pain, health professionals often hear them say it was their wife/female partner who urged them to go to the emergency room, but what happens when the tables are turned?
The lesson: take steps to reduce your risk of heart disease, know the symptoms of a heart attack and put your health first.
Several studies have shown that, much like the general population, even healthcare professionals can dismiss how deadly heart disease is for women.
Recent Australian research showed that women with heart disease were less likely to receive high-quality healthcare from professionals compared to men with heart disease. Women were less likely to be prescribed recommended medications and less likely to receive routine checks such as a blood test for lipids (fats).
Also, women with stroke are more likely to have a delay in care compared to men, and are less likely to be prescribed treatments such as aspirin, statins or clot-busters (thrombolytics).
The take-home advice for women is to know your risk and work towards decreasing it. If you are diagnosed with heart disease, double-check with your doctor that you receive all the advice, tests and medications you need to keep your heart as healthy as possible.
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel to your brain get blocked by a clot or bleeds. And it’s a life-threatening emergency.
According to a 2016 Australian Government report, around 4900 females die each year from stroke compared to 3200 males.
This difference is largely due to the fact that women tend to have strokes when they are older, so the impact is more severe. However, researchers say there are other factors specific to women’s health that are at play.
The good news is, just like other types of heart disease, stroke is largely preventable because many of its risk factors are changeable, such as high blood pressure, physical inactivity, being overweight and smoking.
Oestrogen is a hard-working hormone. Not only limited to our reproductive and bone health, oestrogen affects almost every tissue in the body, including the cardiovascular system.
Research shows that oestrogen helps to protect our blood vessels and to keep our cholesterol levels normal. It is a true heart-health helper.
This is of course wonderful news, but there is a ‘but’… when women reach menopause, levels of oestrogen – and the heart protection it provides – falls dramatically, and our risk of heart disease shoots up. It’s not the only reason why risk of heart disease increases so greatly in women after menopause, but it’s a big one.
There are some things that increase our risk of heart disease that we can't do much about, such as our age, sex and family history. But there are many other factors that are within our power to change.
In fact, more than 90% of women in Australia have at least one risk factor they can improve upon, and 50% of all women have two or three.
So what steps do you need to take to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease? That’s what today’s topic is all about.
What is cardiovascular health? What are the different types of cardiovascular disease and how can they be managed? Get the facts by downloading today's top resource.
Healthy food can lower your risk of developing health problems and help manage issues such as heart disease and diabetes, but how do you know what's healthy and what's not?
You know your actual age, but what is the age of your heart? Calculate it here with the Heart Foundation's Heart Age Calculator and understand what contributes to your risk of heart disease.
Heart disease happens on the inside – it’s a silent killer. You may look and feel 100%; however, these checks give you and your doctor important insight and pinpoint any issues early on – even before you may be aware of them – when they can be more easily and effectively treated.
A heart health check can be easily done at your local doctor’s office. Due to COVID-19 or other reasons, perhaps it may have been a while since your last check-up. So, this week, during Women’s Health Week, it’s time to get back on course and make an appointment.
Here are the health checks you need to look after your cardiovascular health, and how often you need them.
If you are aged 45 years+ (or 35 years+ if you are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage), it’s recommended that you see your doctor for regular heart health checks.
Your doctor may also ask you about your family history of heart disease and lifestyle habits – such as if you smoke, your levels of physical activity and stress – to assess your overall risk.
Not only linked to bone health and reproduction, oestrogen helps us maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
It also keeps our artery walls flexible (your arteries are a type of blood vessel) so they are better able to relax and expand when blood flows through.
And – as if that wasn’t enough! – this helpful hormone aids in the formation of new blood vessels and fights off dangers and damage to the blood vessels such as scarring (fibrosis) and free radicals.
Because of the positive powers of oestrogen, younger women have a much lower risk of developing heart disease, as their oestrogen levels are higher.
But – much like a seesaw – when women reach menopause (commonly at 45-55 years of age), oestrogen drops and stays at very low levels. This dramatically increases the risk of heart disease.
Our declining hormones are not the only reason why heart disease risk increases for mid-life women, but it’s important for all women to know it’s a risk factor – particularly if you have an early menopause.
Remember it's like a seesaw: when hormones fall, your risk for heart disease rises.
To help you to remember how to recognise the signs of stroke, and what to do, just think: FAST.
The signs of a TIA are the same as a stroke, but they disappear within a short time. Often, the signs are there for just a few minutes.
Even though things appear to go back to normal after a TIA, don’t ignore it. After a TIA, your risk of stroke is higher, especially in the first few hours and days. Call 000 straight away.
It starts with getting a heart health check to assess your risk factors and taking charge of your own health by living a healthy lifestyle.
Now it’s time to get to the heart of the matter. Being physically active is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Join us today as Women’s Health week ambassador and founder of bike riding group Wheel Women, Tina McCarthy, sits down for a chat with Sheree Hughes of the Heart Foundation.
Tina McCarthy (pictured above), founder of the cycling group Wheel Women and a proud Women’s Health Week ambassador, knows all about the importance of physical activity and cardiovascular health, having a family history of heart disease and a heart condition herself.
She tells us her story about how she has made physical activity a regular part of her life and how she stays motivated.
No measuring or weighing of ingredients, no strict rules or secret weapons. This heart-healthy diet is backed by solid evidence - and even better, it celebrates food and flavour with simple ingredients, seasonal produce and sensational taste. Sound too good to be true?
Research has finally shrugged off their ‘bad-boy’ image and found that eating a handful of nuts daily is linked with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, as well as cancer, even with as little as one serving per week.
Get the good news on nuts.
Balanced with the saltiness of tamari, this recipe makes for a very moreish (and heart-healthy) snack. Perfect to have on hand at work, at home or in your handbag.
Browse our Cardiovascular health webpages to learn more about heart health and get research-based information on preventing and managing heart disease.
What’s one way to reduce your risk of heart disease? Stop smoking, or never start. Breathe easier and visit Quit to get free tools to help you kick the habit.
Did you know that alcohol is more harmful for women than men, and increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and early death? Read what the research reveals and get tips for curbing your intake.
Download the Her Heart checklist to fill out and take your doctor. Start a conversation about your heart health today.
Discover delicious and nutritious heart-healthy recipes on the Jean Hailes website, just like this Shiitake & miso noodle soup.
Queensland’s program ‘My health for life’ is a free, healthy lifestyle program helping Queensland women (and men) to live well. Check out their quick and easy online health check.
We’re encouraging you to make your moves count. Join us to collectively travel 16,500 kms — the equivalent of 22 million steps — around Australia. You can choose your own distance and cover it your own way, at your own pace, while sharing your efforts online and raising funds for Jean Hailes.
Sam is a qualified personal trainer, with a Bachelor of Exercise Science degree and Certificate 3 and 4 in Fitness.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on Women's Health Week 2020 - what you liked, what you didn’t, and what you want to see more of next year.