Heart disease kills 6 times more women than breast cancer, doctor warns

Women aged 45 to 65 years are likely to die much earlier than men after a heart attack, says a cardiologist in Dubai

By Ivan Dsouza

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Photo used for illustrative purposes only
Photo used for illustrative purposes only

Published: Wed 28 Sep 2022, 7:25 PM

Last updated: Wed 28 Sep 2022, 11:16 PM

It is easy to think that breast cancer could be the leading cause of death among women — but did you know that heart disease kills six times more females than breast cancer every year?

Citing health research, a UAE doctor warned that it's high time women — and society — woke up to this ticking time bomb.

Women aged 45 to 65 years are likely to die much earlier than men after a heart attack, according to Dr Suma Victor, a cardiologist at Prime Medical, Burjuman.

Heart disease has come up to say a nasty hello to women due to ills such as sedentary lifestyles, smoking, stress and depression brought on by modern life, thus negating their ‘natural’ protection.

“While it’s true that heart attacks are less among younger women due to the protective effect of the hormone estrogen, psychosocial risk factors such as depression and stress, smoking, lack of exercise and social factors dilute that advantage," said Dr Suma.

Dr Lalita Nemani agreed. “In some cases before menopause, the natural protection for women is breached due to metabolic syndrome, stress, anxiety and pregnancy-related factors. Smoking and oral contraceptives make for an even more dangerous combination," said the consultant cardiologist at Ismail Day Surgical Centre at New Medical Center Deira.

Financial issues

Socio-economic factors also play a role in women neglecting early signs and symptoms of heart disease.

Dr Murali Krishna Neelakantan, cardiology consultant at Prime Hospital Dubai, said this is because women often tend to give priority to family and other personal commitments, thus neglecting what’s happening to them.

“We have also seen that women are generally reluctant to go for check-ups. Another factor is that in cases where women don’t work or have no insurance, they may not have easy access to healthcare.”

'35% of heart attacks in women go unnoticed'

Dr Suma said that awareness about heart disease is also extremely low among women in the UAE.

In one research report, 82 per cent of women said they did not know heart disease was the number one killer globally, the doctor pointed out.

Dr Lalita said this could be because cardiovascular research has predominantly focused on men, with socio-cultural norms adding to the neglect of women’s heart health.

Women also often ignore the symptoms of heart attacks, as they may not experience the ‘typical’ signs like chest pain, said Dr Suma.

“Nearly 35 per cent of heart attacks in women are believed to go unnoticed or unreported,” she revealed.

Since women have smaller arteries than men, coronary artery disease (CAD) develops differently, and more diffusely among women. Also, CAD in women tends to afflict smaller arteries that feed the heart.

Heart disease in women has unique characteristics, too, said Dr Lalita. “Increased mortality and morbidity in women with coronary artery disease can be attributed to older age at presentation, delayed presentation and worse cardio-metabolic (heart disease and metabolic disorders such as diabetes) risk profile in women,”

Young and restless

In recent times, we have seen more men and women fall victim to heart disease at a younger age.

One of the biggest reasons behind this is the consumption of processed food, said Dr Suma. “Processed food often has some chemicals and preservatives which can cause intense inflammation, damaging the protective layer in the blood vessels, predisposing to ‘blockages’.

“Studies show that young women, when they do get a heart attack, have a higher risk of death in contrast to men of similar age,” she added.

Apart from this, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, pregnancy-related complications, and connective tissue disorders contribute to the rise in heart attacks among young women, doctors said.

Response to medications

According to some studies, women do not respond as well to clot busting medications and angioplasty procedures as men. “When compared to men of the same age, women aged 45 to 65 years are more likely to die within a year of heart attack, whereas older women are likely to die within weeks,” revealed Dr Suma.

Dr Lalita said that post-heart disease, bleeding and vascular complications are more common in women taking clot-busting medicines. “This is due to the fact that the present recommendations that are applied to women have been derived from trials conducted in men. There is a dire need for research about therapies specifically in women.”

Another factor, she said, could be because of smaller blood vessels in women.

Dr Murali said that women often tend to present late after the onset of symptoms when the disease would be in a more advanced stage. “This can cause failure of clot-busting drugs. The clot burden is more in the heart blood vessels, which can be an issue during angioplasty,” he said.

Tips for a healthy heart

  • Exercise regularly with moderate intensity on most days of the week or at least for 150 minutes a week. This may include walking at a brisk pace.
  • Maintain a healthy weight of BMI less than 25 and eat heart- healthy diet.
  • Avoid refined, chemical-filled, and processed food and eat fresh and organic food that is low in trans fats and salt.
  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke, which also can damage the blood vessels.
  • Go for regular health screening to detect heart disease early and avail of treatment when necessary. For women who do have heart disease, cardiac rehabilitation can improve health and aid recovery from heart disease.
  • Watch out for ‘women-specific’’ symptoms — such as breathing problems, nausea or fatigue. Consult your doctor if you experience these or any other signs associated with heart disease.

(Courtesy:Dr Suma Victor)

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