The Six Most Important Things Women Need to Know About Heart Health
While February is a time when Cupid takes aim at the heart, it also marks the start of Hearth Month. This is a great reminder for each of us to think about our heart health – especially women. Heart disease and stroke are the #1 cause of premature death for Canadian women, yet according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, women’s experience with heart disease is unique in several important ways, including symptoms that do not quite fit the classic textbook picture of heart disease, accuracy of diagnostic test results and the effect of physiological changes that often come from pregnancy, menopause and hormonal changes.
Adding to these variances, women are under-aware of the risks and signs. Gender-based differences and socio-economic status also impact women’s health. For example, Indigenous women die from heart disease at a younger age and experience a 53% higher death rate from coronary heart disease than non-Indigenous women.
Read more: Indigenous Health Issues in Canada
Whether it’s for your mom, sister, daughter, close friend or yourself, here are the six most important things to know about women and heart disease.
- Know your risks. There are three types of risk factors: 1. medical conditions: such as high blood pressure or diabetes; 2. lifestyle factors such as unhealthy smoking, heavy drinking or stress; and 3. those you cannot control, such as age (especially after menopause) and family history of heart disease. You are your own advocate. Make the time to learn your risks and follow up with your healthcare provider with any concerns or changes in your heath.
- Don’t ignore the signs. While the most common sign of a heart attack is chest pain or discomfort, women can experience one without chest pressure. Their symptoms might appear as shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, light-headedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue. Often, women will ignore these warning signs and carry on. If the heart stops for any reason, it not only means reduced oxygen to vital organs, but death can occur within minutes. Immediate attention can be a lifesaver.
- Trust Your Instinct – Use Your Voice. Heart attack symptoms go unrecognized in 53% of women, according to the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada. Now that you know the symptoms, take the time to get in tune with your body and recognize when something doesn’t feel right. Then, talk to your healthcare professional about your risks. Knowledge is power.
- Reduce the Risk with a Healthy Diet. 8 in 10 cases of premature heart disease and stroke cases are preventable through healthy lifestyle changes, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. In addition to reducing stress and exercising, this includes eating well. You should aim to have seven to 10 servings of vegetables or fruit every day, eat plenty of whole grain foods (which contain fibre, protein and important B complex vitamins – in particular B6 B12 and Folic Acid) and eat protein from lean sources (which helps build muscle) for optimal brain and heart health. Changing your diet might challenging, but your heart will thank you.
- Get Your Heart Pumping. Like any muscle, the heart needs to be worked out to stay healthy. Regardless of your age, it’s a good idea to add physical activity to your life. Exercise has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, increase energy, reduce stress levels, improve sleep and help prevent and control risk factors for diseases like high cholesterol, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes. So how much is enough? According to Canada’s Food Guide, the goal for adults (including seniors) is 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.
- Self-care to stay health. Getting outside to enjoy nature and reduce fatigue, and creating a bedtime routine that supports healthy sleep habits, taking medication as prescribed is essential to good heart health. If you have concerns about potential side effects, be sure to speak to your pharmacist or healthcare provider for more information and peace of mind.
While there have been major advances in heart research to treat and support Canadian women in their quest for optimum heart health, prioritizing your health by taking the steps above – and being your own advocate – are essential. After all, when you know better, you do better. You deserve only the best.