When asked about the biggest disease risk for women, most people will say breast cancer. While cancer is certainly a prevalent and important risk that women should stay on top of — particularly if they have a family history of cancer — the success of public awareness campaigns around breast cancer has given it a disproportionate share of the public’s attention.
In Canada, 5x more women will die from heart disease than breast cancer. In the United States, the leading cause of death in women, more than any other condition, is heart disease. Research from the American Heart Association also shows that transgender men and people assigned female at birth are 4x more likely to develop heart disease.
Awareness of women’s unique risk factors is growing, but despite all the medically documented risks, only 56% of women are aware that heart disease is their top killer. Compounding the problem, 66% of all heart disease research funding focuses on men.
The gender gap in research funding is important because differences between women’s and men’s hearts are significant enough to play a part in their experiences of heart disease. Not only are women’s hearts sized differently and exhibit differences in how heart disease impacts artery function, but estrogen and menopause play a huge role in how women and people with internal reproductive organs are put at risk. Without adequate study, the unique impacts of heart disease on women are less understood and they’re put at unnecessary on-going risk.
Heart disease impacts women more severely than men
Though the public perception of heart disease tends to be directed more toward men, women are actually more at risk:
- Women who suffer one heart attack or more likely than men to die or experience a second heart attack.
- Most women in North America have at least one (and often more than one) key risk factor for heart disease, including diabetes, unhealthy body weight, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol.
The role of estrogen in heart health
The Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation says, “During a woman’s reproductive life cycle, from about age 12 to 50, the naturally occurring hormone, estrogen, provides a protective effect on women’s heart health. However, estrogen’s protective effect can change depending on a variety of factors and conditions.”
A few possible heart disease-related conditions people with internal reproductive organs should monitor and discuss with their doctor throughout their reproductive cycle include:
- Birth control and contraceptives
For a small subset of people, oral contraceptives can increase the risk of high blood pressure and blood clotting. This risk is greater if you smoke, are over the age of 40, or have a pre-existing blood clotting condition
During gestation, pregnant people might develop certain conditions that put them at greater risk of stroke or heart disease, including pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, and pregnancy-related strokes.
Risk of heart disease and stroke increases after menopause, including significant changes in how the body stores fat and manages cholesterol.
Preventing High Blood Pressure
Look out for major symptoms of heart disease
Though you might not experience any noticeable symptoms of heart disease, talk to your doctor soon if you regularly experience:
- Chest pain/angina (either dull and heavy or sharp)
- Pain in your neck, jaw, or throat
- Pain in your upper abdomen or back
- Regular incidences of nausea, vomiting, or fatigue
Emergency symptoms where you should call 911 and get medical attention ASAP include:
- Arrhythmia (palpitations or fluttering feelings in your chest)
- Heart failure, including sudden, dramatic shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins
- Heart attack, including sudden, dramatic chest pain or discomfort, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, dizziness, and shortness of breath
3 top tips to lower your risk of heart disease
1. Stop smoking
Smokers are 3x more likely to die from heart disease than non-smokers, and smoking is the #1 cause of preventable death in North America. If you’re currently a smoker, stopping is one of the absolute best things you can do for your long-term overall health.
We know that nicotine is addictive and stopping is easier said than done. Chat real-time with a registered nurse to get personalized advice on how you can stop and the benefits that are available to help you make it easier.
2. Get (even a little bit) more physical activity
When it comes to exercise, even a small amount can have important benefits over doing nothing at all. The key is just to get started rather than thinking you need to have a perfect, life-changing workout routine.
If you’re newer to exercising, our Getting Started with Fitness Health Program gives you all the direction you need to start moving, feel motivated, and turn activity into a regular habit.
3. Get more protein from plants and less from animals
A recent research paper published by the International Epidemiology Association studied the diets of more than 80,000 men and women. It found that folks who get the majority of their protein intake from plant sources were 40% less likely to have heart disease.
Our Foundations of Healthier Eating program gives you step-by-step actions to add more veggies to your diet for a big-time impact on your overall health and well-being.