Women need to take hands-on approach to heart disease

November 6, 2007

Women need to take hands-on approach to heart disease

31st October 2007
Sue Grant-Marshall

Heart attacks kill six times as many women as breast cancer, yet it is the latter thats regarded by many women and their partners as our modern-day killer. Its time to wake up to the dangers of not caring for your heart, writes SUE GRANT-MARSHALL

HEARTS, the ancient symbol of love and life, are no more than a pump and far less complicated than many other body organs. Yet for women, they are increasingly the deadliest part of our anatomy if we dont take care of them.

The good news, brought to us by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA, is that theres a great deal we can do to avoid heart disease. The foundation recently hosted a wellness workshop as part of the Go Red for Women international movement, which is aimed at increasing awareness among women of the risks and signs for heart disease.

We did this because women still see heart disease as a mans disease. We want to educate them, says Hugo Coetzee, marketing manager for the foundation. One problem is that women often experience milder symptoms than do men, and about a third have atypical symptoms with no chest pain at all.

This is not good news in a male-dominated society where doctors still pay more attention to mens medical problems, and this is one of the reasons why heart-disease symptoms often go unrecognised and untreated in women. This results in more advanced vessel disease with a poorer outcome. So women and men need to learn about the risk factors for heart disease, and stroke.

There are some factors over which we have no control. Age is one, for as women get older, their risk of cardiovascular disease increases, especially after menopause. Family history is important as many South African families are genetically predisposed to familial hypercholesterolaemia. If a blood relative has had heart disease or a stroke, you need to inform your doctor and be aware of your increased risk. If youve already had one heart attack, youre at a greater risk of having a second one.

Theres a great deal women can do to control risk factors. Women who smoke have double the risk of a heart attack. Smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease as it narrows and damages arteries by clogging them and causing blood clots.

High blood cholesterol can lead to a buildup of fatty material in the walls of arteries, reducing the blood supply to the heart, which can also cause a heart attack. Research shows that womens cholesterol is higher than mens from the age of 45 on. You can improve your count if you cut down on fat, especially saturated fat, in your diet.

High blood pressure or hypertension is a major risk factor for heart attacks and is often referred to as the silent killer because there are usually no visible symptoms. Being overweight or obese leads to high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels. Your heart is a pump and you damage it by making it work harder because of the increased load your weight is putting on it. South Africans are at high risk as we are the third most obese nation in the world.

Stress adds significantly to cardiovascular disease although more research is needed on its exact contribution. Everyone suffers from stress, but SA is in a class of its own with crime rates and car accidents among the highest on the planet.

Alcohol abuse isnt good for anyone, but its particularly bad news for those predisposed to heart disease.

Other factors such as the use of some oral contraceptives, pregnancy and menopause also contribute to heart disease. Health checks are essential in prevention of heart attacks. So have your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar tested regularly. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends an electrocardiogram (ECT) for postmenopausal women.

The ideal reading for blood pressure, says the foundation, is 120/80. Consistent readings of 135/95 should urge you to visit your doctor. The ideal reading for total cholesterol is five millimoles a litre or less. A reading of 7,5 is high, according to the foundation, and you might need medication.

Changing your lifestyle, if you think you are at risk, is essential. Eating less fat is vital, so avoid frying food and boil, steam or grill instead. Eat more fibre as this helps control your cholesterol levels. Oats, wholewheat bread, legumes, beans and at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day will help.

Regular exercise is essential for maintaining cardiovascular health. Research has shown that physical inactivity is a risk factor for heart disease. You need to do at least 30 minutes most days of the week. Dont smoke. Limit alcohol to one drink a day and avoid it if youre overweight or have high triglyceride levels (body fat).

Manage stress by doing meditation, yoga, Pilates or tai-chi. Having a regular massage is extremely relaxing. So is having an absorbing hobby as we learnt from Vodacoms CEO Alan Knott-Craig in Health News recently. He has had several heart attacks. Learn how to manage your time better by delegating, prioritising, not procrastinating and saying no more often.

The sooner you make a decision, the better, as having a heart attack hanging over your head is hugely stressful. Ask friends, family, boss and work colleagues for support if youre feeling stressed.


– Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women whore over the age of 35.

– Heart disease kills six times as many women as breast cancer.

– It has killed more women than men every year since 1984, and the death rate is rising.

– Cigarette smoking is the number one controllable risk factor for heart disease, yet 8,1% of South African women smoke and the rate is rising.

– Women who have heart attacks are twice as likely as men to die in the first few weeks after the event.

Womens heart attack symptoms are often vague, putting women at severe risk. The symptoms include:

– Shortness of breath

– Nausea and vomiting

– Fatigue

– Dizziness or fainting

– Fluttering heartbeat and unexplained anxiety

– Swollen feet

Where to get help

– Heart Mark Diet Line, run by registered dieticians: 0860 223 222

– www.heartfoundation.co.za

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