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How likely are Aussie women to have a heart attack?

8 min read
12 Mar 2019

Imagine you’re going through a normal day, whether that means you’re at home or out and about. But something changes… you begin feeling pain in your back and jaw, you start sweating and you feel lightheaded and nauseous. Your mind begins to race through the possibilities, trying to figure out what’s happening to you.

Do you consider the possibility it could be a heart attack?

Referred to as ‘Australia’s biggest serial killer’, heart disease takes the life of 51 Australians every day. It is the second leading cause of death for women after dementia and Alzheimer’s, as recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.[1] The National Heart Foundation of Australia notes women are roughly three times more likely to die of heart disease than of breast cancer,[2] which is the sixth leading cause of death in Australian women.[3]

The scary part is according to the National Heart Foundation of Australia, 90% of Aussies have at least one of the risk factors for heart disease. These factors include unhealthy habits like smoking and not getting enough exercise, as well as genetics.[4] Furthermore, 50% of women have two or more risks of heart disease.[5]

That said, younger men are more likely to die of heart disease than younger women, specifically in the age bracket of 15 to 29 years old, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. [6] A woman’s risk of heart disease matches that of men as women age, typically after menopause, as noted by the National Heart Foundation of Australia.[7]

Heart disease is something all Australians should consider, but it’s something that sadly too many of us either have misconceptions about or just don’t consider, according to a 2017 study published in Preventative Medicine Reports.[8]

Why are more women worried about breast cancer than heart disease?

The National Heart Foundation of Australia says most women don’t think that heart disease presents a danger to them, and that they might ignore or brush off warning signs as another issue.[9]

But if heart disease kills three times as many women as breast cancer, why do some women ignore the danger?

The variety of heart attack and heart disease symptoms, which are not necessarily specific to heart disease, can make it harder to diagnose a woman with cardiovascular disease.[10] Symptoms of breast cancer on the other hand, while potentially a sign of something else, are located specifically to breast tissue.[11]

Breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst Australian women, and the number of women and men being diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing.[12]

woman in blue jumper leaning on the railing

The 2017 Preventative Medicine Reports study found that women in Australia are less likely to be screened for the risk factors of heart disease, especially in comparison to people with diabetes.[13] In contrast, the AIHW notes the increased amount of formal and informal screening of breast cancer and improved diagnostic techniques have led to a greater number of people being screened for breast cancer.[14]

The Heart Foundation of Australia also found more women were concerned about breast cancer than heart disease.[15] Awareness of breast cancer is supported and carried out by organisations such as Breast Cancer Network Australia, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, the McGrath Foundation and Cancer Australia, amongst others.[16]

The McGrath Foundation, founded by Jane McGrath and her husband Glenn McGrath, a famous Australian cricketer, raise public awareness and funds for breast cancer with The Pink Test cricket game in partnership with Cricket Australia, amongst other McGrath foundation initiatives.[17]

In contrast, awareness for heart disease in Australia is primarily carried out by the National Heart Foundation of Australia, Her Heart, Heart Kids and Heart Research Australia, who encourage Australians to participate in National Wear Red Day on Valentine’s Day.[18]

Doctors and healthcare professionals are working with organisations such as the National Heart Foundation of Australia to raise awareness of heart disease.[19]

Does heart disease affect women differently?

Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease (CVD), refers to a wide variety of different life-threatening diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels, including:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • [20]

Heart disease is based on several risk factors that increase the chance of developing CVD. Some risk factors can’t be altered, such as a family history of heart disease, ethnic background, age, and gender, which all play a part.

However, there are a variety of other risk factors that can be controlled or managed, including:

  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • an inactive or sedate lifestyle
  • obesity
  • poor diet
  • depression.[21]

One problem is that some key cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes are not as successfully treated as they could be, according to a report by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.[22]

The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute found that out of the number of Australian adults with high blood pressure, over two-thirds were not achieving control of their blood pressure with treatment, or were not taking any treatment at all. There were similar problems with other CVD risk factors, such as only half of those with high cholesterol receiving treatment.[23]

woman in red having blood pressure measured

For young Australian women, there’s another roadblock that gets in the way of working on their heart health. Young women are twice as likely to be inactive than young men.[24] On top of that, young women typically do exercise at a lower level of intensity than young men, as well as spend longer amounts of time being inactive.[25]

Inactivity and a general lack of exercise is a problem for a vast majority of Australians, with 50% of adults and 80% of children not getting the amount of exercise they need.[26] Sport Australia expects this to have a huge impact on the nation as a whole, with a potential $88 billion extra added to the nation’s healthcare bill,[27] not to mention the danger it poses to individuals by increasing the chance of developing heart disease or experiencing a heart attack.

Look out for heart attack symptoms

Cardiovascular diseases can lead to a heart attack or cardiac arrest. Heart attacks are caused by blocked arteries, whereas an electrical problem of the heart causes cardiac arrests.[28]

During a heart attack, men and women experience different symptoms.

Men typically experience chest pain, shortened breath and nausea. Women, on the other hand, experience a variety of symptoms:

  • pain or tightness in the back, neck or jaw
  • burning sensation in the chest
  • discomfort in the chest
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • fatigue
  • feeling lightheaded or nauseous
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating.[29]

Pregnant women also face a unique disorder known as pre-eclampsia, which causes high blood pressure and increases the risk of heart disease later in life.[30]

Contraceptive medications like the pill do not increase the risk of heart disease on their own, but smoking while on the pill does lead to a higher risk of heart disease than smoking alone does.[31]

In the event of an emergency, call 000 immediately.  

Sources:

[1] Causes of Death, Australia, 2017. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2018.

[2] Risk factors for women. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[3]  Causes of Death, Australia, 2017. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2018.

[4] Alarming heart survey shows need for national health checks. Sue Dunlevy, News.com.au, News Corp Australia Network in conjunction with the National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[5] Risk factors for women. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[6] Australia’s health 2018: Leading causes of death. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Government. 2018.

[7] Heart attack risk factors. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[8]. Erin Hoare et al. 2017. ‘Australian adults’ behaviours, knowledge and perceptions of risk factors for heart disease: A cross-sectional study’. Preventive Medicine Reports. Volume 8.Pages 204-209.

[9] Australia’s Biggest Serial Killer. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[10] Women and Heart Disease. Heart Research Australia. 2019.

[11] Breast cancer. Cancer Council. 2017.

[12] Understanding breast cancer. Breast Cancer Network Australia. 2019.

[13] Erin Hoare et al. 2017. ‘Australian adults’ behaviours, knowledge and perceptions of risk factors for heart disease: A cross-sectional study’. Preventive Medicine Reports. Volume 8. Pages 204-209.

[14] Australia’s health 2018: Cancer. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2018.

[15] NSW women and heart disease. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[16] Breast cancer organisations. Breast Cancer Network Australia. 2019.

[17] The Domain Pink Test. McGrath Foundation and Cricket Australia. 2018

[18] Wear Red Day. Heart Research Australia. 2019.

[19] NSW women and heart disease. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[20] Cardiovascular disease. The Department of Health, Australian Government. 2016.

[21] Heart attack risk factors. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[22] Change of Heart: Time to End Cardiovascular Complacency. Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute. 2016.

[23] Ibid.

[24] About this campaign. Girls Make Your Move, Department of Health, Australian Government. 2017.

[25] Campaign backgrounder. Girls Make Your Move, Department of Health, Australian Government. 2017.

[26] Aussies urged to ‘move it or lose it’ in Sport Australia’s launch campaign. AdNews. 2018.

[27] Sport Australia encourages all Australians to ‘Move It’ or lose it. Sport Australia, Australian Sports Commission, Australian Government. 2018.

[28] Cardiac arrest. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[29] Women and Heart Disease. Heart Research Australia. 2019.

[30] Heart conditions in women. National Heart Foundation of Australia. 2019.

[31] Coronary Heart Disease and Women. Bupa Health Insurance. 2014.

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Written by James McCay

James is a devoted husband, father, animal lover and history buff (particularly medieval history). He studied Creative and Professional Writing at QUT, and is often buried in a book. James also enjoys historical re-enactment, spending time with his dogs, and making furniture out of reclaimed wood. He hopes to make a positive difference for readers through his writing.

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