It’s ok to ask, ‘Is it my heart?’

This May – Women’s Health Month – we’re urging all women in New Zealand to look after their hearts. Ask your doctor about heart health and take time to reduce your chances of heart disease.

Women at doctor's getting a heart check

As women, we're very good at putting other people first. Particularly when it comes to heart health. Unfortunately, we're not always so good at looking after our own hearts.

Sometimes we're too busy to think about it. Sometimes we're too scared to talk about it. Sometimes we assume that, as women, heart attacks won’t happen to us. But by avoiding the issue, we put ourselves and our families at risk.

This month put yourself – and your heart – first. Spend a bit of time being good to your heart, whether that's a little more activity, eating healthier foods, or quitting smoking. Find out about your heart disease risks and what you can do about them, and if you're worried, discuss them with your doctor.

Women have heart attacks too

Many people still think heart attacks are a male problem. They're not.

Coronary artery disease – the type of heart disease that's the main cause of heart attacks – kills more women in New Zealand than any other single condition. We lose approximately 2000 of our mothers, sisters and daughters to it every year.

“Just because you’re a woman, don't think 'I can’t be having a heart attack',” says Heart Foundation GP and Primary Care Advisor Dr Joan Leighton. “If you have symptoms that you’re worried about, it's ok to ask, ‘Is it my heart?'”

New Zealand hospitals discharge more than 20 women every day after a heart attack.

And heart disease doesn't just affect older women. Although women are more likely to get coronary artery disease once they've stopped their periods, women in their 30s and 40s can be affected too.

What can I do?

The good news is there's lots you can do to reduce your chance of having a heart attack. And, if you do have a heart attack, recognising the symptoms and getting help immediately reduces the damage to your heart.

The most important things you can do are:

  • Know your risk factors and discuss them with your doctor or nurse
  • Take action to lower your chances of having a heart attack
  • Know the heart attack symptoms and don’t ignore them if you have them

Learning about your heart disease risk

Risk factors are the things in your life that could increase your chances of coronary artery disease and heart attacks.

Some of these factors you can’t change, like your age, ethnicity, and family history of heart disease.

However, there are lots of other risk factors that you can take control of like quitting smoking, exercise, healthy eating, and managing medical conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Spend five minutes learning about your risks and what you can do about them.

What are my risk factors?

What should I ask my doctor?

It’s a good idea to ask your doctor about your risk of heart disease. Then you can come up with actions to reduce your risk.

You can ask your doctor:

  • about your heart disease risk factors
  • when you should have a heart and diabetes check
  • about any symptoms you might have, such as pain or discomfort in your chest or breathlessness

And remember if anything is worrying you, it's ok to ask, ‘is it my heart?’

Lowering your chances of heart attack

Once you know your risks, there's lots you can do to reduce them.

What are the heart attack symptoms for women?

It's important to know what a heart attack could feel like.

Are you experiencing… In any of these areas? You may also experience:
  • heaviness
  • tightness
  • pressure 
  • discomfort/pain
  • chest
  • shoulder
  • jaw
  • arm
  • neck
  • back
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Remember, everyone experiences heart attacks differently – and women are more likely than men to experience heart attacks without chest pain.

If you think you're experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack call 111 immediately. The sooner you're treated, the less damage there is to your heart.

Unfortunately, we often wait before calling an ambulance or seeking help. The key is to take action without delay.

“There's been a tendency for women to dismiss their symptoms as something else,” says Dr Leighton. “But if you have worrying symptoms, it's important to call an ambulance. The same goes for your mother, your sister, or your aunty. Don't let them talk you out of getting help if you think they could be having a heart attack.”

Find out when to get a heart check