Women’s heart disease

Heart disease is the biggest killer of women in New Zealand. It claims more than 3,000 of our mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers every year.

DID YOU KNOW? More than 50 women in New Zealand lose their battle with heart disease every week, and what's worse is that some of these deaths are premature and preventable

Why is women’s heart disease such a problem?

Many people are simply not aware of this tragic statistic, partly because heart disease is often seen as being a ‘man's disease'. This means many women are unaware of what causes heart disease and less likely to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack. Women are also slower to seek medical attention, meaning they are more at risk of permanently damaging their heart, or of dying.

The good news is there are things you can do to lower your risk of heart disease

Living with heart disease

There are more than 75,000 women living with heart disease in New Zealand. If you have coronary heart disease (you have had a heart attack or been diagnosed with angina) you do have a greater risk of having heart problems in the future.

Heart disease is a lifelong condition for most women. However, there are steps you can take to improve your heart health and live a full life.

You can make changes to your lifestyle, take medications as prescribed. Taking these steps can make a real difference to you and your family and give you the confidence and support to work towards a healthier you.

Visit our HeartHelp website for information and support for people living with heart disease, and for their family and friends.

As a woman you need to know about

Your hormones may provide some protection against coronary heart disease prior to menopause. However, after menopause, a woman’s risk of heart disease usually increases as a result of risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and being overweight.

Menopause is a natural event that occurs when the ovaries stop producing eggs, and the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. A woman is said to be in menopause once her menstrual cycle (period) has stopped for more than 12 months. The average age that most women go through menopause is 52.

What happens to your body after menopause?

You may experience an increase in:

  • low-density lipids (‘bad’ cholesterol), which raises overall cholesterol blood levels
  • blood pressure
  • body fat
  • insulin resistance – which can prevent the body from breaking down sugars and thereby increase the risk of developing diabetes

You may also find changes to your:

  • metabolism, which can create a number of problems, such as raised blood pressure, cholesterol and increased weight
  • body fat distribution, having fat deposits around the torso (as opposed to the hips) increases the risk of heart disease, even in women of a normal weight

There may be some link between oral contraceptive pills and an increase in blood pressure and blood clots for some women. The risk of this is small and is more likely to occur in women who are overweight, have kidney disease or have a family history of high blood pressure.

Pre-eclampsia is a serious condition affecting about 5% of pregnant women, identified by symptoms like spikes in blood pressure, protein in the urine, severe swelling of legs and hands, and headaches or vision problems.

Although pre-eclampsia generally goes away after pregnancy, many women may not be aware that pre-eclampsia can signal an increased risk of heart disease.  In fact, evidence suggests that pregnant women who develop pre-eclampsia have more than double the risk of having a heart attack or stroke later in life.

Arming yourself with knowledge might just save your life, or the life of someone you love. Find out the heart attack symptoms for women and when you should have a heart health check.

Learn heart attack symptomsWhen to have a heart check