Sisters are doin' it for themselves: a girl's guide to heart disease

Welcome to June sisterhood! June is the month the Australian Heart Foundation uses as it's Go Red for Women month. A time to raise awareness and funds for women's heart disease. Yesterday was Go Red for Women day and it was lovely seeing social media awash with red as we all remember how scary heart disease in women. A lot of people would be forgiven for thinking that breast cancer is the leading cause of death in Aussie women. But unfortunately, that is not the case. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Australian women. It's so important that we recognise that and understand that it is not just a bloke's disease. It can affect any of us and unfortunately, if it does, the consequences can be terrifying. Women with heart disease don't fair as well as the blokes. Even in younger women, ladies with heart disease die of the disease more often and have poorer quality of life. Think of quality of life as being able to do the things you need or want to do. Dancing, swimming, walking, shopping, stairs or going to the toilet yourself.

So in honour of Go Red for Women, here is my brief guide to heart disease in women.

Coronary artery disease in women

Coronary artery disease refers to blockages in the coronary arteries. These are the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. When these get blocked, you have what is commonly referred to as a heart attack. A bit of the heart muscle dies - this can be a big bit or a little bit. Coronary artery disease kills nearly 10,000 women a year in Australia (compare this with breast cancer which is about 3,500).

The risk factors for coronary artery disease in women are being overweight or obese, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, genetics and smoking. See what is interesting about that list? They're virtually all changeable risk factors.

After a heart attack, a number of things can happen. Some people who have a heart attack can die immediately from the heart attack due to an abnormal heart rhythm, a rupture of part of the heart muscle or the pumping mechanism of the heart being so badly damaged. Other people may recover to a point, but some of these people have longer term problems. These can include heart failure which can stop you doing even simple things like getting dressed or angina which are like multiple 'near heart attacks' and can seriously limit how you live your life.

Ladies with coronary artery disease don't do as well as the blokes

I hate to say it but this is one area the men have us covered. Women with heart disease tend to see the doctor later, have it detected later and do badly after a heart attack. This is partly because the symptoms of a heart problem tend to be a little different to the men. Women tend to present with vaguer symptoms like being tired doing physical things or short of breath. The typical chest pain in the middle of the chest may be a slightly more vague discomfort, not even in the chest but in the jaw or arm. As such, the symptoms are not usual and it can be easy for patients and health care professionals to miss.

The way women block their coronary arteries is different to the men. Women have very small blood vessels blocked which makes the symptoms different and the diagnosis and treatment harder. It means that if you are a woman with risk factors for heart disease, you should be vigilant for changes in your ability to do physical tasks, funny niggles in the chest region or getting super short of breath doing things like climbing stairs.

The later diagnosis and later or different treatment mean that women who get coronary artery disease don't do as well. Even younger women with heart attacks fair badly. They unfortunately die from their disease more often and don't recover particularly well.

Modern medicine is pretty cool but not always able to save the day

Prevention is better than cure. It's a bit of a modern way of thinking that if we get sick, we can have a tablet or an operation and everything will be okay. I'm afraid that is simply not always the case. We see patients regularly who have heart disease who cannot have an operation to fix their blockages in the coronary arteries. These patients have to be treated with medicines that don't fix the problem. They're more like putting band-aids on a gun shot wound.

The best defence we have against heart disease is to not get it in the first place. And with modern life catching up with a lot of us leading to inactivity, weight gain, high cholesterol, smoking rates alarmingly high in young women, we need to put the brakes on immediately. Today is as good a day as any to stop smoking, get active and lose weight. It's not easy or fun. Well sometimes it's fun. But I can guarantee you, recovering from heart surgery or worse yet, dying from heart disease is even less fun.

Don't forget about other forms of heart disease

Coronary artery disease is the main offender but not everything. We see a number of women with other nasty heart conditions like heart failure, rheumatic heart disease or congenital heart disease. The number of women with these conditions are growing and doctors and researchers are working tirelessly to manage these growing problems.

Worried? Get checked up.

Like that ad for the national terrorism hotline a few years back, we should be alert, not alarmed. (Who would have thought that phrase would have stuck so much?) If you are worried that you are at risk of heart troubles or have a heart problem, see your GP and get everything checked.

For more information: visit the Heart Foundation Australia website here

And importantly to donate to Go Red for Women: click here

And lastly - watch this fabulous video by C. Noel Bairey Merz about women's heart disease

And - #WeWillBeRed