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Heart Foundation urges women to look after their heart health

Mother and daughter

This May the Heart Foundation is urging New Zealand women to look after their heart health.

More than 50 women in New Zealand die each week of heart disease, making it the single biggest cause of death for women in Aotearoa.

Women and men largely share the same risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and family history. 

Women are, however, more likely than men to experience a heart attack without chest pain or discomfort.

An international study published in 2020 concludes that women under the age of 55 can experience different heart attack symptoms to men. 

Heart Foundation Medical Director Dr Gerry Devlin says, “this research provides important information on heart attack symptoms which may be different on occasions among women. Awareness of this and improved awareness of the less typical symptoms can hopefully prevent missed diagnoses of heart attacks in women.” 

The study looked at ten symptoms of a heart attack and the top symptoms experienced by both men and women were pain in the chest, jaw, neck, arm or back. However, women presented with less chest pain and more sweating, dizziness and nausea than men. 

Female patients may also present with a different combination of symptoms, which means doctors misdiagnose those experienced by women.

“Women are also less likely to call an ambulance than men, often dismissing their symptoms as something else.

"If you have any kind of worrying symptoms, it's important to seek help and call an ambulance immediately for prolonged symptoms," says Gerry.

Despite many similar risk factors, heart disease tends to occur at a later age in women with the risk increasing particularly after menopause. 

In many cases, women are also more vulnerable to the risk factors than men. This is because:

  • nicotine is metabolised faster, so smoking creates a bigger risk for women
  • women with diabetes are at a greater risk of heart disease than men with diabetes
  • a family history of heart disease can be a stronger predictor in women.

Women who have gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia during pregnancy may also be at risk of increased heart disease later in life. 

Currently, the Heart Foundation is supporting research in New Zealand looking at the association of premature birth with heart disease in mothers and babies in adulthood.

This month, the Heart Foundation is urging women to put yourself – and your heart – first. Spend a bit of time being good to your heart. Show your heart some aroha, 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.

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.