March 8th is International Women’s Day, when we celebrate the women in our lives. Whether they are mothers, sisters, partners, friends or co-workers, women have special health considerations that go beyond regular breast and gynaecological exams. One of these areas is the heart.
Often considered more of a “man’s disease”, cardiovascular disease is actually the main cause of death in women around the world[i].
Pregnancy puts stress on the heart
The heart needs to work harder to nourish a growing baby and for women with heart problems the increase in blood volume increases the risk of developing congestive heart failure. Women at risk need special care during pregnancy and should seek a doctor’s advice as early as possible, preferably before becoming pregnant. Expecting mothers who are taking medication for heart disease, such as blood thinners, also require special medical supervision to avoid causing harm to the baby.
According to Otto Smiseth, Director of the Division of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Diseases at Oslo University Hospital and member of the Best Doctors European Medical Advisory Board, women with heart disease should always seek advice from their doctor, preferably a cardiologist, before they plan to become pregnant and should be informed about associated risks. For some conditions the risks are simply too high for both mother and child.
Professor Smiseth goes on to explain that labour and delivery can also place an extra burden on the heart. In some cases, the baby should be delivered at a medical centre that specialises in high-risk pregnancies. Finally, women who experience a rise in their blood pressure during pregnancy need to ensure that they are closely monitored even after giving birth, as this temporary condition may lead to chronic hypertension later in life.
With ageing, the risk increases
A women’s risk of developing heart problems increases in menopause and post-menopause, when hormonal changes make her more vulnerable to conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and weight gain, all of which can contribute to heart disease. In addition, women considering hormonal therapy as treatment for menopause are also at risk, and should discuss the implications with their doctor before going ahead.
Studies have shown that women metabolise nicotine faster than men[ii]. This is particularly true for women who are also taking oral contraceptives. Taken together, both factors can increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease. The same holds true for diabetes, and female diabetes sufferers have a higher heart-related mortality rate then men[iii]. Much of this is due to preventable factors, such as obesity. For the sake of their hearts, women need to ensure they stay active and get enough exercise.
Women need to speak up
According to the European Society of Cardiology[iv], women are less likely than men to be aware of their heart risk factors and participate in screening programmes. Moreover, many women do not recognise the signs that their body is actually suffering a heart attack, as these may be different from the symptoms most people commonly associate with the condition. Such symptoms may include shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, light-headedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue[v].
Best Doctors encourages all of our readers, women and men, to work with their doctor and learn more about their heart risk and that of their loved ones.
[i] World Health Organisation, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs334/en/
[ii] European Society of Cardiology http://www.escardio.org/about/what/advocacy/euroheart/documents/womenshearts-redalert.pdf
[iii] See note ii
[iv] See note ii