Despite perceptions that heart disease is primarily a male disease, it is also the largest single cause of mortality among women, accounting for a third of all female deaths worldwide. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, South African statistics are also alarming, with 1 in 4 women at risk of heart disease compared with 1 in 35 at risk of breast cancer.
Ahead of Women’s Month in August, Graham Anderson, Principal Officer at Profmed, the medical scheme that caters exclusively for graduate professionals, says there is a common misconception that women are at far less risk of developing heart disease.
"Oestrogen does provide some protection against heart disease, but as oestrogen levels reduce after menopause, this protection also decreases. As a result, by the age of 60, both men and women are at equal risk of developing heart disease."
He says it is important to note that the warning signs of a heart attack in women are also less evident, as symptoms tend to be markedly different from those experienced by men.
"It is estimated that as much as 35 percent of heart attacks in women go unnoticed or unreported. This may be partly due to the fact that the symptoms for women are not the classic tightness or pain in the chest.
"Instead women are likely to experience a wide range of sensations. Symptoms to look out for include an uneasy feeling in the chest; abdominal pain; shortness of breath; fatigue and nausea; dizziness and even swollen feet."
Anderson says the problem for many women in diagnosing heart disease is that the symptoms may be easily dismissed as simple stomach pains.
"A sign that something more serious may be wrong is if the symptoms worsen when the heart is put under pressure, for example when exercising. If this is the case, then it is important to act immediately. Medical help is most crucial in the first few hours after the attack."
He says that while there are a number of factors that contribute towards heart disease, including medical conditions and a genetic predisposition, changing one’s lifestyle is a key area in which one can make a concerted effort to reduce their risk.
"Heart disease is exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices such as excessive drinking and smoking, a lack of exercise and a poor diet. By taking regular exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet low in saturated fats and reducing stress, one can aim to reduce their risk.
"The impact of poor lifestyle choices does not just lead to an increased risk of heart disease but also results in an increased likelihood of strokes, heart attacks, tobacco- and nutrition-induced cancers, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and many others. As a result, it is crucial that all South Africans seriously review their lifestyles and make the necessary adjustments to avoid long-term implications to their health," concludes Anderson.