Cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer of Australian women, claiming three times as many women as breast cancer, yet awareness is low.
Sheriden Emonson from Central Victorian Cardiology said women present differently to men and may not be aware their symptoms are those of cardiovascular disease.
CVD refers to all diseases and conditions involving the heart and blood vessels. Coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure are all examples.
“I think something that surprises women when I talk to them about heart disease is how non-specific women’s symptoms can be,” Dr Emonson said.
While men generally display textbook symptoms such as chest pain radiating to their jaw and down their left arm, women can experience non-specific symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea, heart palpitations, sweating and fatigue, which gradually worsen.
“Symptoms can be subtle and non-specific. It might be that you can’t ride five kilometres on the bike anymore and that you can only do four or you’re sleeping more,” Dr Emonson said.
Women are also exposed to a unique set of risk factors including polycystic ovarian syndrome, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.
“Prevention is really focused on your modifiable risk factors and sticking to target in all those areas,” Dr Emonson said.
These lifestyle factors include staying within a healthy range for weight, physical activity, cholesterol and blood pressure.
“It’s also a good idea to get your sugars and cholesterol checked annually once you turn 40,” she said.
While prevention through lifestyle change is always preferred, Dr Emonson said medical advances in the last 50 years makes treatment possible.
“Thirty or 40 years ago people who had a heart attack suffered with increasing heart failure,” she said.
“Now we have advanced treatments including coronary artery stents and bypass surgery, resulting in little or no lasting damage to the heart after a heart attack.”
Much like an annual dentist appointment, Dr Emonson said people should be having annual checkups to check blood pressure levels and address any risk factors.
“You have a lot of influence over your own health.
“In addition to reducing the risk of heart disease, you’re also reducing your risk for lots of other diseases as well so you’re doing no harm by making sure you exercise and making sure you’re in a healthy weight range,” she said.
Dr Emonson encourages women to ask questions and think creatively about how they can decrease their risk of CVD.
“What would make you want to exercise every day? Do you need to walk with a friend?
“Do you need to get a dog so that you have to take the dog for a walk? Is it a treadmill because it’s winter?
“It’s about thinking creatively to help empower people to look after their own health.”
– GRACE AICKEN