Cardiologist Dr Rakesh Sharma talks about the differences in men’s and women’s hearts and how you make sure you stay heart healthy.

Heart disease affects women

World Heart Day takes places this September, reminding us all that we need to take care of our tickers! However, despite the fact that heart disease kills approximately one in eight women – more than three times as many as breast cancer – many people still think of it as an overweight man’s disease. For many women, breast cancer looms large as a greater fear, but heart disease effects women too, and it’s really vital that women are aware of, and can recognise the symptoms.

Women’s hearts are different than men’s

Women’s hearts are different to men’s. They are smaller and they beat faster – so women can experience different symptoms. The public tend to think of heart disease manifesting itself as someone falling to the ground, clutching their chest. But it doesn’t always work like that. In addition to classic symptoms such as crushing chest pains, shortness of breath and sweating, women can often present with less typical symptoms, such as:

  • neck and jaw pain

  • upper back pain

  • abdominal pain, like indigestion

  • nausea and fatigue

Worryingly, because women are often unaware that these symptoms may be cardiac in origin, they are less likely to seek medical help and advice when they need to, meaning that often they present at a later and more serious stage of the disease.

Keep your heart healthy

The good news is that there is plenty women can do to reduce their risk of developing heart disease. There are a number of risk factors which can be addressed, such as smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure to name but a few. Women who have been through the menopause have a heightened risk of developing heart disease, so they need to tackle these factors early to reduce their risk. Some top tips for maintaining heart health are:

  • Eat healthily: By changing your eating habits you can reduce your cholesterol level and your blood pressure. Eat three to five portions of fruit and veg a day, reduce salt and sugar intake, and replace caffeine with herbal tea. Foods containing omega oils such as oily fish may also be beneficial.

  • Exercise regularly: Regular exercise is the best ‘medicine’ you can take yourself – aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Small changes can make a huge difference. For example, take the stairs instead of the lift, park your car 20 minutes from your work, or invest in a pedometer, so you can assess the amount you walk each day.

  • Quit smoking: As soon as you do, your health will improve. Within one year of giving up, your risk of a heart attack is halved. Fifteen years after giving up, your heart attack risk falls to the same level as someone who has never smoked.

If you think you might be suffering from any symptoms of heart disease, see your GP, or in case of new onset chest pain then phone for an ambulance. The earlier that heart disease is diagnosed the better.

Dr Rakesh Sharma is a cardiologist at Cromwell Hospital.