In the past, heart disease was a greater problem for men than it was for women, but today heart disease and stroke take the lives of nearly as many women as men. And while most of the risk factors for heart disease are the same for both sexes, women’s hearts are affected by some special factors that don’t apply to men.
- Estrogen: During a woman’s reproductive years (usually the ages of 12 to 50), her body produces estrogen, which helps protect her heart. When a woman goes through the transition to menopause, her body decreases the amount of estrogen it produces, reducing the protection.
- Oral contraceptives (birth control pills): While the birth control pills available today are much safer than the options that were available years ago, they still increase the risk of high blood pressure and blood clots in a small percentage of women. The risk is greatest among women who smoke (especially if they are over the age of 35), women who have other risk factors for heart disease or stroke, and women who already have a blood clotting problem.
- Pregnancy: During the nine months of pregnancy, women may develop health problems that increase their risk of heart disease. A woman who is planning to become pregnant may want to talk to her doctor about being assessed for heart disease before she conceives and being monitored throughout her pregnancy, and even for a while following childbirth.
- Cholesterol: Overall, about 45% of Canadian women between the ages of 18 and 74 have cholesterol levels above the healthy range. That number jumps to 80% among women aged 65 to 74. All women should speak with their doctors to find out how often they should have their cholesterol tested.
- Triglycerides: A high level of triglycerides (a type of blood fat related to cholesterol) may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke even more in women than it does in men.
Until fairly recently, it was believed that men and women experienced different heart attack warning signs. We now know that this isn’t necessarily true. Both men and women can experience either the typical symptoms or symptoms that aren’t typical; however, the most common symptom in both men and women is chest pain.
If you have questions about heart health or the risk factors for heart disease, speak with your doctor or London Drugs pharmacist.
Cigarettes: A Smoking Gun
Women who smoke are eight times more likely than other women to suffer from weakening of the wall of the aorta, the largest artery in the body. This weakness, called an aortic aneurysm, can require surgical repair, or it can rupture and cause death. Quitting can cut that risk in half— women who gave up smoking reduced their risk to four times the risk of women who never smoked.
Many women who have aortic aneurysms are completely unaware of it, so women who smoke, particularly if they also have high blood pressure or a family history of aortic aneurysm, should speak to their doctors about the advisability of being screened for the condition.
If you smoke and want to stop, your London Drugs pharmacist can recommend products and strategies to help you quit successfully