25 Mar 2021
No, Women’s Hearts Are Not Stronger
Estimated read time: 4 minutes
The time has come to debunk the still-pervasive myth that heart problems primarily affect men. The reality is that heart disease affects both genders equally. It is among the chronic conditions that most impact our health and the healthcare system. It is the leading cause of death for women worldwide.
That’s why experts are calling for public heart health campaigns to target women, with as much strength and tenacity as initiatives to prevent breast cancer, for example.
As caretakers and providers, women have a tendency to care for others before themselves and minimize the symptoms that could be signs of a cardiovascular illness. Many tend to make light of certain issues, attributing their heart palpitations to stress and their brushing their chest pain off as just a little heartburn.
The fact is that research on cardiovascular disease has long focused on men, who die from heart problems as well as other illnesses. "As of 2020, less than 40% of clinical trial participants were women, an alarming gap that needs to be addressed to ensure research is inclusive of women’s unique needs,” according to the American Heart Association.
What Exactly is Heart Disease?
The term “heart disease” encompasses several types of cardiovascular conditions. The most common is coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects blood flow to the heart. The lessened blow flow can lead to a heart attack. This occurs when a part of the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood.
Heart disease is often “silent,” meaning it can remain undiagnosed until a person experiences signs or symptoms of a heart attack, heart failure, or arrhythmia. This is particularly true for women, who split their time between work and family and tend to delay preventive medical care and annual checkups -- appointments with their primary care provider that include screenings to diagnose these conditions at an early stage.
When the following heart problems occur in women, these are usually their signs and symptoms:
- Heart Attack: pain or discomfort in the chest, pain in the upper back or neck, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, discomfort in the upper part of the body, dizziness, and difficulty breathing.
- Arrhythmia: A feeling that the heart is “fluttering” or skipping beats (heart palpitations).
- Heart Failure: difficulty breathing, fatigue, and swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins.
How Does This Chronic Condition Develop?
Failing to understand the causes and underestimating the symptoms can prove to be a deadly combination. The principal risk factors of heart disease are as follows:
Hypertension: A condition in which the blood vessels have persistently raised pressure. When the heart beats, it pumps blood to the vessels, which carry the blood to the rest of the body. Blood pressure measures the force of blood pushing against the walls of blood vessels (arteries) when it is pumped by the heart. The higher your blood pressure, the harder your heart has to pump. If left untreated, this can lead to heart failure.
Smoking. Also contrary to popular belief, tobacco use is not just a risk factor for lung cancer -- it can also increase the risk of cardiovascular illness. Although women tend to smoke less than men and smoking rates are on the decline, there are still 244 million women worldwide who use tobacco on a daily basis.
Obesity and Excess Weight. Since 1975, the number of people who are obese or overweight has tripled in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Mexico, for instance, obesity is considered a public health crisis: 76.8% of women are overweight or obese. Both of these conditions can lead to a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood to the organs). If the arteries that carry blood to the heart are damaged and become blocked, they can cause a heart attack.
Sedentary Lifestyle. A lack of physical activity in women is critical, and also contrary to widespread belief, it’s not always a question of motivation. In addition to their workload in and outside the home, women can face other obstacles to exercising — for example, living in densely populated areas with high crime rates, traffic-related risks, poor air quality, or a lack of safe parks and open spaces in which to be active.
Three Big Little Changes
The good news, however, is that heart disease is preventable in most cases — with a little bit of willpower, but also with the help of public health systems and medical attention that supports change, especially in more vulnerable regions.
The World Health Organization has three key messages to keep in mind to heart health:
- Tobacco use, an unhealthy diet, and insufficient physical activity increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
- Exercising or walking for 30 minutes at least five days a week can help prevent these conditions.
- Eating at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables every day and limiting our consumption of salt to less than a teaspoon a day can also help prevent heart disease. It’s essential to manage our sodium intake by eating less processed or canned foods, which often have a high sodium content.
One risk factor of cardiovascular disease that’s often forgotten is mental health. The pressures of daily life can lead to long-term stress and even depression, both of which can have effects on the heart. In these cases, we must stop aiming to be a real-life “Wonder Woman,” seeking help when we need it rather than aiming to solve every problem at once on our own. In this area, personal willpower is critical, as is a healthcare system based on supporting mental health, free from stigma and prejudice.
Remember, always consult with your physician or other qualified health care professional to determine the best options for your body and health and to answer any questions you may have regarding any medical matter.