Women and Heart Disease: A Deadly Combination

By Stephanie Lunn

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in Canada for women over 55 years of age.

What is heart disease?

  • most common form is coronary heart disease
  • occurs when plaque (a fatty substance) blocks blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients to the heart
  • if plaque completely blocks a blood vessel, a heart attack can occur

Risk factors:

  1. Tobacco Smoke: women under 50 years old who smoke have a higher risk of having a heart attack than non smoking women
    • the risk of a heart attack increases even more for female smokers over 35 who are also on birth control
    • inhalation of second hand smoke increases the risk of a heart attack for non smokers
  2. Excess Body Weight: overweight women are at a higher risk of developing heart disease
  3. Physical Inactivity: inactive women have 2X the risk of developing heart disease than active women
  4. Diabetes: high blood sugar levels can damage arteries carrying blood to the heart as well as increasing the likelihood of plaque development in the arteries
  5. High Cholesterol Levels: high levels of LDL cholesterol can block arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease
  6. Hypertension (High Blood Pressure): hypertension increases the work the heart must do to pump blood through out the body, which puts extra stress on the heart muscle
    • blood vessel walls are more likely to be damaged and clogged with hypertension as well
  7. Menopause: menopausal women have a higher risk of developing heart disease
  8. Family History: if a woman has blood relatives that were diagnosed with heart disease before they were 55 years old, it increases her risk of developing heart disease
  9. Race: black and South Asian women are at a higher risk of developing heart disease, though all women are at a risk
  10. Social and Economic Factors: women with low levels of education and income have a higher risk of heart disease
    • may be due to the difficulties they face in living healthy lifestyles that could prevent heart disease

Though the above list may seem daunting, the good thing is that many of these risk factors can be reduced. For example:

  • 30 minutes of physical activity, 4-6X a week keeps the heart strong and can prevent heart disease
  • losing even a small amount of weight can reduce the risk for overweight women
  • eating a healthy, balanced, low fat and low cholesterol diet to decrease LDL cholesterol levels
  • quitting smoking
  • managing high LDL cholesterol levels, diabetes and/or hypertension through medications prescribed by your doctor

To help in the management of some of the risk factors described above, such as hypertension, diabetes and high levels of LDL cholesterol, medications may be used alongside a healthy lifestyle. There are a variety of drugs available specific for each of these health issues, with the doses and types tailored to each individual depending on your level of risk and personal characteristics. One thing to understand about these drugs is they are not a cure but rather a way to manage the signs or symptoms of these conditions. For example, “ACE inhibitors”, a class of drugs used to lower blood pressure, or “statins”, a class of drugs used to lower cholesterol, are often taken over many years. For many individuals, if the medications are stopped prematurely, risk factors may rise back to pre-treatment levels. So remember to take your medications regularly and if any questions arise, discuss with your doctor or pharmacist. Drugs used to help with hypertension, high LDL cholesterol levels and diabetes, are effective in treating their respective conditions and these work best when choosing to live a heart healthy lifestyle as an overall collaborative approach in managing heart disease risk.

Source: “Are Women at Risk for Heart Disease?” Public Health Agency of Canada. Web. 4. Jul. 2012. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cd-mc/cvd-mcv/women-femmes_01-eng.php