According to 2019 stats, heart and circulatory diseases cause a quarter of all deaths in the United Kingdom — that's more than 160,000 deaths each year – an average of 460 deaths each day or one every three minutes in the UK.
Coronary heart disease was found to be the most common type of heart disease, which is also said to be the most common cause of heart attack and was the single biggest killer of both men and women worldwide in 2019 (1).
What is heart disease?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the term “heart disease” refers to several types of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). The most common is coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects the blood flow to the heart (1, 2).
Thus CAD is the term that describes what happens when your heart's blood supply is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries (1). This buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries, or atherosclerosis (ath-ur-o-skluh-ROE-sis) can lead to damage in your blood vessels and heart - often resulting in a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke.
Which symptoms should you look out for?
In terms of symptoms, experts say that it isn't always easy to spot them until a person experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, or arrhythmia. Unfortunately, CAD can sometimes go undiagnosed due to the fact obviously symptoms don’t always present themselves - with some patients living with it “silently” until something major happens.
What are the most common symptoms in men and women?
- Pain or discomfort in your chest that occurs suddenly and doesn’t go away
- Pain that radiates to your left or right arm, neck, jaw, back or stomach.
- Feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.
Less common symptoms include a sudden feeling of anxiety or dread, excessive coughing, indigestion and wheezing.
Note that it’s been argued in some cases that heart disease symptoms may present differently in men and women. Research has found that the disease tends to develop 7 to 10 years later in women than in men and is still the major cause of death in women. Concluding that its risk in women is often underestimated and subsequently underdiagnosed (and misdiagnosed) due to the misperception that females are ‘protected’ against cardiovascular disease. According to the recent stats by a British Heart Foundation report, women:
- Get half as much heart attack treatment as men
- They are also 50% more likely to receive a wrong initial diagnosis than their male counterparts, increasing the risk of death by as much as 70%
- Women are less likely than men to receive standard treatments such as bypass surgery or stints
Women also fail to recognise the symptoms in themselves due to cultural stereotypes that frame heart disease as a “male-health issue”. In reality, a study found that twice as many women die of heart disease than breast cancer each year in the UK, while 800,000 women are currently living with the condition.
It was found that the under-recognition of heart disease and differences in the clinical presentation of symptoms in women often leads to less aggressive treatment strategies and a lower representation of women in clinical trials.
In terms of symptoms, women are more likely to present with shortness of breath, nausea, and extreme fatigue — over and above chest discomfort.
What are the traditional causes and risk factors common to both women and men:
- High blood pressure
- Family history
- Metabolic syndrome – the coexistence of high blood pressure, obesity, and high glucose and triglyceride levels
- High levels of C-reactive protein – a sign of inflammatory disease that can occur along with other cardiovascular risk factors
We need to emphasise that although many of the causes and risk factors are due to lifestyle choices, underlying genetic factors and or family history can also play a strong role. This is to say, it doesn’t mean you can’t develop heart disease just because you’re living a perfectly healthy and active life. So it's pivotal that those who think they may be protected due to lifestyle habits — also still pay attention to any changes in their bodies and also get checked regularly. The American Heart Association advises that those above the age of 20 should begin screening tests for coronary artery disease.
This is important to note because younger people tend to think they are not at risk, which isn't always the case. Keep in mind that even though being older is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, it doesn’t mean that being under 40 makes you immune to cardiac arrest or cardiovascular disease. Hence we recommend that you consult with your physician about cardiovascular screening based on your family history and risk factors.
Here are some risk factors that can affect women disproportionately:
- Relatively high testosterone levels prior to menopause
- Increasing hypertension during menopause
- Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis – more common in women than in men
- Stress and depression – also more common among women
- Low-risk factor awareness – Lack of recognition of many of the above conditions as risk factors for heart disease is a risk factor in itself
What can be done to prevent heart disease?
Outside of the underlying genetic factors that are beyond your control, there are lifestyle factors that can be put in place to reduce one’s risk of developing heart disease.
Health experts suggest
making heart-healthy choices like eating a low-saturated-fat diet that is high in fibre and low in fatty, avoiding processed foods, not smoking, being active regularly (with at least 3 times per week for at least 30 minutes of exercise recommended), managing your stress levels, keeping track of your cholesterol and consulting with a physician about cardiovascular screening based on your family history and risk factors could help lower the risk.