Coronary heart disease is the biggest killer of women worldwide yet despite this statistic heart disease and heart attack are still considered to be 'male illnesses'.
The stereotypical heart attack victim seen on TV is an over-weight, middle-aged man who drinks, smokes and is stressed out at work. We often see these characters keel over holding their chest in the throes of a heart attack.
However, research over the past 20 years or so consistently undermines this perception and informs us that heart disease is, in fact, the biggest killer of women as well as men.
Much of the historic data about heart disease comes from men and there is clearly a need to build up data and evidence on women and their experience of heart disease.
For both men and women the classic symptoms of heart attack are:
- chest pain that comes on suddenly and might feel like pressure or tightening
- the pressure/pain might spread to the arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach
- feeling sweaty, light-headed or out of breath
Other less common symptoms of heart attack include:
- a sudden, overwhelming feeling of anxiety
- coughing and/or wheezing
From the research it seems that women are most likely to try and 'push through' the first symptoms of heart disease, wrongfully assuming that they are transient in nature and unlikely to be heart attack because they don't have that in their mind as a health risk pertinent to them.
Further, when women do present to medical professionals with the classical symptoms, evidence shows that they are 50% more likely than men to receive the wrong diagnosis and many are turned away with a diagnosis of anxiety or panic. Others are wrongly diagnosed with the type of heart attack they are having.
The effect of misdiagnosis and the wrong treatment is that many women are denied the vital and life-saving treatment they need leaving them to face a much higher chance of mortality than their male counterparts.
Further, and for reasons that are still unclear, women are often under-rehabilitated following cardiac illness and under-prescribed medication which may prevent a second heart attack.
The British Heart Foundation has tried to educate and raise awareness of heart disease in women and there certainly is more media interest but the progress appears very slow.
There is little doubt that there is a gender gap in heart attack care and diagnosis that continues to disadvantage women and this is not going to change until perceptions change.
The British Heart Foundation has targeted three areas where perceptions need to change:
- Raise awareness that coronary heart disease is the biggest killer of women worldwide and shift the perception that this is a man's disease.
- Understand and tackle inequality - what are the barriers that prevent healthcare professionals delivering the same quality of cardiovascular diagnosis and treatment and aftercare to women as well as men.
- Fund more research - women are massively underrepresented in historical data and research and this in and of itself must be hampering the successful diagnosis and treatment of heart disease in women.
On World Heart Day women should all be aware that heart disease is as much of a threat to them as it is to men, and they should be alert to the symptoms.
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