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Women and cardiovascular disease – what you need to know

Did you know that three out of 10 Australian women will die from cardiovascular disease?

Or that half a million Australian women suffer one or more heart, stroke and vascular diseases each year?

While these numbers are lower overall than previous years, the hospitalisation rate for younger women (aged 25 to 44 years) with cardiovascular disease is on the rise. Indigenous women are also twice as likely as non-indigenous women to have cardiovascular disease.

What is cardiovascular disease?

There are many different conditions that can affect the heart and blood vessels that are known as cardiovascular disease:

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease is the most common cardiovascular disease. There are two main types of coronary heart disease – heart attack and angina. A heart attack occurs when a blood vessel to the heart becomes blocked, damaging the heart muscle. This can be a life-threatening event.

Angina is chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. Angina can be stable, where periodic episodes of chest pain occur due to a temporary lack of blood supply to the heart, or unstable, where chest discomfort becomes more frequent. Unstable angina can be life-threatening and is treated in a similar manner to a heart attack.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain becomes blocked or ruptures. This can result in part of the brain dying, which can impact a number of functions. It can cause paralysis, problems with speech, vision and thinking, and may be fatal.

Heart failure and cardiomyopathy

Heart failure is where the heart is struggling to pump blood around the body. Although it can occur suddenly, it usually develops over time as the heart gradually becomes weaker. It can be caused by a number of problems such as a damaged heart valve, high blood pressure or heart attack. Heart failure can be life-threatening.

Cardiomyopathy is where the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thickened or stiff. This can be caused by coronary heart disease, infections and chronic alcohol abuse. Both cardiomyopathy and heart failure often occur together.

The symptoms

The symptoms of cardiovascular disease can vary between men and women.

While men often describe chest pain, women are more likely to describe weakness, fatigue, indigestion and shortness of breath, symptoms which may be mistaken for something else. If you suffer from any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment to see your doctor.

The risks

The following may increase a woman’s chance of developing cardiovascular disease:

  • Smoking
  • Lack of exercise
  • Too much alcohol
  • Poor diet
  • Being overweight
  • High blood pressure

When to see a doctor

If you suspect you might have cardiovascular disease, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. They might decide that a cardiologist review and further testing with a Coronary Artery Calcium Score (CAC) or if you are having chest pain, a stress test or a CT coronary angiography (CTCA) is needed to help diagnose the problem.

A CTCA and CAC score are one of the best ways to assess the condition of your coronary arteries, heart muscle and heart valves. As a scanning test, it's far less invasive than some of the procedures designed to check your heart health. It takes advantage of the latest advances in high resolution scanning to create detailed and accurate images of the heart, lungs, and arteries in just seconds. That means an easier, non-invasive diagnosis of the cause of symptoms and earlier detection of underlying or developing problems.

After the scan, your cardiologist will discuss the results with you and, if needed, design an individualised program for you to start to reverse the blockage of your arteries and lower your risk of heart attacks.

If you need urgent medical care (if you suspect you are having a heart attack or stroke), call 000.

References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

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