Around the world, cardiovascular disease and heart health is a topic of great importance among both men and women. A recent study published by the World Health Organization cites just under 18 million deaths due to heart disease in 2015, making up nearly 31% of all fatalities in adult populations. These statistics make cardiovascular conditions the number one cause of death, warranting a greater discussion around how to prevent it. However, the high rate of heart disease does not mean the right diagnosis is always forthcoming, particularly for adult women. Without timely intervention and treatment, heart disease can lead to devastating outcomes.
The Lancet Global Health Report recently highlighted the impact of heart disease on the female population, sharing it was the number one killer in India and throughout other developed countries around the world. Even though women experience heart disease as a serious health issue, many are not screened for risk of developing related conditions nor do they pursue prevention tactics with as much vigor as men. There are several reasons behind the dichotomy between men and women when it comes to heart disease, but the reality is that taking steps to improve heart health may have a more compounded impact on women’s health than their male counterparts.
The Risk Factors
Risk factors for heart disease come in many different forms, but the most common include:
- High cholesterol that is not controlled
- High blood pressure
- Prediabetes or diabetes
- Substantial alcohol intake or smoking
- Obese or overweight adults
- A history of heart disease in the family
Both men and women may develop heart disease over a lifetime, but adult women who have risk factors for the condition may be more likely than men to develop cardiovascular issues over time. In women who have a single risk factor, they are twice as likely to develop heart disease than those who have no risk factors and men who have just one risk factor. Women who have three risk factors are ten times more prone to developing heart disease than men of the same age.
Adding to these issues are the medical conditions women may experience over a lifetime that do not impact men. Development of heart disease may be more likely in women who had gestational diabetes, those who experience martial stress, or those who have had adverse pregnancy outcomes in the past. Recent studies also show that hormonal changes during adulthood due to a variety of catalysts may also have an impact on the prevalence of heart disease in women. All of these unique risks mean women must take great care to get an accurate diagnosis if they believe their heart health is questionable.
Why Women are Misdiagnosed
In the UK alone, tens of thousands of women die from a heart attack due to untreated heart disease each year. The total number of fatalities is higher than men of the same age group because women receive the wrong diagnosis initially 50% of the time. According to a team specialised in medical malpractice claims, the high rate of misdiagnosis can be linked to the perception that heart disease is a man’s health issue, rarely impacting women. Many female patients do not recognise the warning signs of a heart attack, nor do they know they have one or more risk factors in play before heart disease takes its toll. In some cases, a diagnosis of a different issue may be offered initially, such as an anxiety or panic attack, or indigestion. Health conditions like these inaccurate diagnoses are not given as much attention as heart attacks, and therefore, treatment is not offered in enough time to keep a patient alive and well.
A heart attack takes place when heart disease is left untreated. The arteries become blocked with fatty deposits, and bloodflow is not able to reach the heart with ease. If left untouched for an extended period, a heart attack is fatal for men and women. However, because women are not diagnosed as quickly as men in most cases, steps toward prevention are even more important to help prevent devastating outcomes.
Preventing Heart Disease
The compounding impact of prevention strategies among women to improve heart health cannot be overstated. The first step taking more control over one’s heart health is understanding the risk factors mentioned above, but closely followed by reducing those risks whether they are present or not. Women can be proactive in eliminating some of the risks by living a healthy, active lifestyle with a balanced diet, consistent physical activity, and low stress when possible. Additionally, improving heart health means giving up vices like smoking and alcohol, and shedding excess weight over time.
While these small lifestyle changes may seem minimal, their impact on women’s heart health is profound. However, it is also helpful for women to understand the warning signs of a heart attack in addition to risk factors for heart disease. Pain or pressure in the chest, feelings of fullness, or sudden shortness of breath should prompt an immediate visit to the doctor. Any warning sign that feels out of the norm or sudden is a sign that medical intervention may be needed. Being aware of these red flags and taking steps toward a healthier life can make a significant difference in the lives of women as it relates to heart health.