Search one of the free photo databases for ‘heart attack’, and the only images you’ll find of someone supposedly in the throes of such an event will feature men.
No wonder most of us can’t identify heart disease as the leading cause of death among women, or that it takes five times as many lives as breast cancer. But the truth is that by the time we reach 60, our risk factors are similar to those of men.
That said, we’re not just small men. There are risk factors unique to us — such as a history of treatment for breast cancer. And some of the classic heart disease risk factors, are stronger in women than their male peers: a woman with diabetes, for instance, is two- to four-fold as likely to develop ischemic heart disease (the kind that blocks blood flow) than a man the same age with a similar medical history.
And while chest pain is still the most common symptom of heart attack in women, we’re less likely to describe with those words, instead calling it things like, ‘pressure’ — which can cause medical personnel to scratch that diagnosis off the list before actually doing tests to rule it out.
Knowing what your risk factors are, and doing your best to get them under control, can reduce the odds that you’ll develop heart disease. And if you do so nonetheless — for instance, due to a strong family history — we now have medications that can substantially lower the likelihood that it will cut your life short.
A heartfelt thank-you to the interviewees who so generously shared their time and knowledge:
- Dr. Sonia Anand, professor of medicine and epidemiology at McMaster University and senior scientist with the Population Health Research Institute in Hamilton, Ont.
- Karen Narraway, a former nurse who shares her personal story to raise awareness about heart disease in women.
- Dr. Colleen Norris, professor in the faculty of nursing and adjunct professor in the faculty of medicine and school of public health at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and scientific director of Alberta Health Services’ Cardiovascular Health and Stroke Strategic Clinical Network.
- Dr. Sherryn Rambihar, a staff cardiologist at Mackenzie Health, Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson, and adjunct assistant professor in the division of cardiology within the University of Toronto’s department of medicine.
- Carolyn Thomas, whose experience with heart disease spurred her to write the book, A Woman’s Guide to Living With Heart Disease, and blog for Heart Sisters.
- Dr. Michele Turek, an associate professor in the division of cardiology at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, and The Ottawa Hospital.