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Women's heart health in social context

Illustration in heart health in a social context

Heart disease and stroke are the top health issues for women across the world. Yet, many women think these are mostly diseases that affect men. 

Women often wait too long to get help when they have signs of a heart attack. This means that after a heart attack, women can face more severe health issues than men, and are more likely to die in the weeks after a heart attack. 

Because of this, it’s not surprising that even though fewer men are now dying from heart problems, the numbers for women haven’t dropped as much. In fact, younger women are seeing a rise in heart-related deaths

This means people are starting to pay more attention to women’s heart health, including doing more research to understand why there’s such a large difference between men and women. 

Gender bias in heart research

One reason for this is that most heart studies have focused on men (and this is the case for other health research too). This means our understanding of heart problems in women isn’t as good as it should be. Women’s hearts are different from men’s, and the risks and signs of heart issues can also differ. Women might even have different types of heart attacks, meaning different outcomes and needing different care. 

We all know some of the main risks for heart disease: high blood pressure, too much saturated fat in the blood, diabetes, smoking, and having excess fat around the waistline. These risks affect both women and men. But smoking and diabetes are even riskier for women when it comes to heart disease.

There are also some risks only women have (we talk about these in the section on Unique aspects of heart disease in women). These risks can’t be treated but they do show who needs to be monitored more closely. Women with these risks might need extra care for problems that can be treated, like high blood pressure. 

However, many of the tools doctors use to measure heart risk were made for men, based on understandings of heart disease in men. This means they might not catch all the risks women have when assessing our risk of heart disease. Because of this, there is more chance of your doctor or specialist under-estimating your risk.

Gender inequality in medicine at all levels of the health system – funding research, exploring treatment, and educating heath workers – mean that women’s heart disease, along with many other conditions, is under-researched, under-diagnosed and under-treated. Women from disadvantaged backgrounds are at even greater risk of heart disease.

Educating about heart health

As well as the lack of research and medical education on heart disease in women, not enough has been done to teach women about heart risks. It’s important for women to know the signs of heart problems and how to lower our risk as we age. In the next sections, you’ll find helpful information about women’s heart health.

Finally, if you have been diagnosed with heart disease, there are support systems that you can reach out to for advice and help. The Heart Foundation’s My Heart, My Help program also provides support and resources for people diagnosed with heart disease and their carers.

And The Heart Collective is an informal network of women with heart disease, created to provide a safe environment for women to connect, share experiences and learn from each other – see their video here.

References

Aslam, A et al. (2021) Previous Pre-Eclampsia, Gestational Diabetes and Hypertension Place Women at High Cardiovascular Risk: But Do We Ask?  Heart, Lung and Circulation. 30, 154-157.  

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019) Cardiovascular disease in women. 

Better Health Channel (2015) Heart disease and stroke. 

Connelly PJ, Freel ME, Perry C, Ewan J, Touyz RM, Currie G, et al. (2019) Gender-affirming hormone therapy, vascular health and cardiovascular disease in transgender adults. Hypertension. 74(6): 1266-1274. 

Christensen H, Bushnell C (2020) Stroke in women. Cerebrovascular Disease. 26(2): 363-385. 

Gao Z, Chen Z, Sun A, Deng X. (2019) Gender differences in cardiovascular disease. Medicine in Novel Technology and Devices. 4(100025). 

Heart Foundation (nd) What is heart disease? 

Irwig, MS (2018)  Cardiovascular health in transgender people. Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders. 19: 243-251. 

Maas A, Appelman Y (2010) Gender differences in coronary heart disease. Netherlands Heart Journal. 18(12): 598-602. 

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (nd) Women and heart disease. 

National Institute on Ageing (nd) Heart health and ageing. 

Shajahan S, Sun L, Harris K, Wang X, Sandset EC, Yu AY, et al. (2022) Sex differences in the symptom presentation of stroke: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Stroke. 19(2). 

World Health Organization (nd) Cardiovascular diseases.