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Heart Disease in Women

While many think of heart disease as a big health concern for men, it is often overlooked that heart disease is the number one cause of death in Canadian women over 55. Women are significantly less likely to develop heart disease before menopause because of the protective effects of estrogen. After menopause, however, the risks of developing heart disease increase with age.

Why Heart Disease is Deadlier for Women

Women are faced with poorer survival rates following cardiac events, for a number of reasons worth knowing. Timely treatment is crucial to preventing or reducing heart damage following a heart attack. But because of a lack of awareness of the risks, women are more likely to discount unusual symptoms as possibly being heart-related, and tend to delay seeking treatment.

Much of the scientific research on heart disease has focussed on men, so there is less guidance for health care providers on when to investigate potential cardiac issues in women. Though women do often experience classic chest discomfort and pain during heart attacks, they may instead experience less classic symptoms such as fatigue, nausea and back or jaw pain. Furthermore, women’s arteries are smaller than those of men, making blockages more difficult to detect.

Because of these gaps in awareness among women and health care providers, women are 50% more likely to die than men in the year following a heart attack. The Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre is working to improve understanding and public and clinical awareness of the differences between how men and women manifest signs of heart disease.

Risk Factors

In women over 55, several factors increase the risk of developing heart disease. They include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Family history
  • Ethnicity, with those of First Nations, African or South Asian background at higher risk

This quiz developed by the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation will help you learn more about your risk profile. Discuss any concerns you have about your risks with your health care provider.


Many of the risk factors described above are known as ‘modifiable’ risk factors. A heart-healthy lifestyle is the best prevention against heart disease, and includes:

  • Following Canada’s Food Guide for optimal nutrition
  • Regular physical activity
  • Smoking cessation
  • Work with your health care provider to effectively control diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you suspect you may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. The most common heart attack symptom among women is chest pain or discomfort, but women may experience it differently than men. Additional symptoms may include:

  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, left shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Sweating or “cold sweat”
  • Fullness, indigestion, or choking feeling (may feel like heartburn)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, extreme weakness or anxiety
  • Rapid or irregular heart beats

Many women experience warning signs of a heart attack for days or weeks in advance. Check with your doctor as soon as possible if you experience any of the following to an unusual degree:

  • Pain in your arm(s), back, neck, or jaw
  • Stomach pain
  • Sudden shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness
  • Sudden sweating
  • Fatigue

Remember, early treatment is key to reducing or preventing damage, so if in doubt, seek immediate medical attention.

If you need support in developing or sticking to a heart-healthy routine, or are recovering from a heart attack, Retire At Home offers a variety of care services to help get you on the path to wellness. Contact us today for a free in-home assessment of your needs.

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