Heart disease is as important in women as in men. Although men as a whole are more likely to suffer from heart disease, the risk in women rises steadily as age catches on.
It is usual to speak of heart disease together with stroke and peripheral vascular disease. In fact, they are collectively known as cardiovascular disease. This is because all these conditions share common risk factors and often exist together in the same patient.
For both men and women, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death accounting for one-third of deaths every year. Complications such as heart failure and stroke are also becoming common health problems in our population.
Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women
The commonest symptom of ischemic heart disease (due to blocked heart artery) is chest pain. Known as angina pectoris, it is classically a gripping pain in the middle of the chest, which comes on during physical activity and goes away when the person rests. When a woman experiences this symptom, she needs to see her doctor early for proper evaluation and treatment. However, not all cases of ischemic heart disease experience the classical pain. Some may just feel that they get breathless much more easily than usual or cannot perform as much physical activity as before. Yet others may just have unexplained weakness or fatigue, indigestion, anxiety or other vague chest discomfort. These are non-classical symptoms that people tend to ignore.
Compared to men, women are more likely to have non-classical symptoms or even no symptom. Women are also more likely to ignore their symptoms. All these factors make heart disease more difficult to diagnose in women.
1. Do not ignore your symptom
2. Listen to your body
3. Seek medical attention if in doubt
What Kind of Screenings do Women Need?
1. Screening for risk factors:
It is very useful to screen for risk factors as early detection and treatment can prevent not only heart disease but also related conditions such as stroke and peripheral vascular disease.
The important risk factors are hypertension, diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol levels, obesity, cigarette smoking, sedentary lifestyle and family history. Proper screening should include measurement of blood pressure, body weight, height and waist circumference. Fasting blood samples for glucose and a full cholesterol profile are essential.
Those with strong family history and cigarette smokers are at especially high risk. A stressful lifestyle is also harmful for the heart.
2. Screening for heart disease:
Heart disease can be difficult to detect at the early stage. If a person has some symptom of chest discomfort, a stress test should be done to determine if there is evidence of reduced blood flow to the heart. The commonest stress test is treadmill test during which the patient does brisk walking on a treadmill machine and electrocardiogram (ECG) is continuously monitored to detect for signs of reduced blood flow to the heart.
Depending on individual conditions, other types of stress tests may be recommended by your doctor. These include stress echocardiography and nuclear perfusion scan. Patients who cannot exercise, e.g. due to knee problem, have the option of stress test using an injectable medication.
Another available type of test is CT angiography. This can measure the amount of calcium in the heart arteries and detect narrowing of the arteries.
Which test to use will depend on the risk profile and condition of each individual. The doctor performing the screening will evaluate each patient carefully before the most suitable test is recommended.
1. Screening for heart health really does not stop at stress tests or heart scans. It is the opportunity to detect any risk factor early so that proper preventive measures can be started.
2. Even if all tests are normal, this is the time to reassure the woman that she is fit to commence a regular exercise program with the aim to maintain a healthy body weight and lead an active lifestyle.