What you need to know about heart disease in women

If you think heart problems are a man’s disease, think again. It’s the leading cause of death of women in Australia.

Heart disease affects one in three Australian women, but the prevailing myth is that heart disease isn’t really a woman’s problem.

“We know that every hour of every day, an Australian woman dies of heart disease but most women are more concerned about breast cancer,” says Julie-Anne Mitchell, of the Heart Foundation.

“But heart disease kills three times as many women as breast cancer. It’s of relevance to every woman.”

Because there is less awareness of heart disease in women, they’re less likely to recognise the risk factors and symptoms.

Key risk factors for heart disease

Risk factors include: increasing age and a family history – if you have a first degree relative who’s had heart disease you could be at greater risk, too.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor, too, and it affects more than half of women over the age of 55. High blood pressure increases heart strain.

“Heart disease kills three times as many women as breast cancer.”

Smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes also play a role.

A lack of physical activity, being overweight or obese, drinking too much and depression also increase the risk of heart disease.
“We know the risk starts to increase around menopause,” Julie-Anne says.

“However, heart disease occurs at every age group. Most women have a healthy pregnancy, but in two to five per cent of cases, complications arise where women get gestational diabetes and higher blood pressure that can lead to pre-eclampsia and rapid weight gain.”

“Most women can take the Pill and be healthy, too, but if you smoke and use the Pill there’s an increased likelihood of blood clotting.”

Julie-Anne advises having a heart health check with your GP to understand your risk of heart disease.

“It was just a pinprick sensation in my heart”

A slight pinprick sensation was the first sign of heart problems for Jane Nolan, 57.

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Within days, she’d had a heart attack.

“I’d been home for 10 days after a holiday in Central America where I climbed volcanoes without any issue whatsoever. But I woke suddenly one night because I felt a pinprick – like when you have an injection. It was through my nipple and gone in a minute.”

“I went back to sleep, but had to see my GP the next day for a script and I explained what had happened. He didn’t think there was anything wrong, but did an ECG, which showed nothing.”

After it happened twice more, Jane wanted a second opinion.

“The cardiologist said I had unstable angina – probably genetic. I was told it was very dangerous and I was going straight to intensive care. Two days later I had a heart attack while with my husband in hospital doing a crossword.”

“I had a stent fitted the following day. I felt awful for five months afterwards, but just over two years later I have my life back. I walk most days and eat lots of fruits and vegies. If I hadn’t gone to my GP to check that pinprick in my heart I wouldn’t be here today – women have to follow their instincts if they think something is wrong.”

Further reading


Written by Sarah Marinos