Abu Dhabi: The risk of cardiovascular disease in women, once considered a problem common among those after menopause, is on the rise in younger women, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi has warned.
This is a matter of concern because women who suffer a heart attack are more likely than men to die of it, said Dr Dima Quraini, staff physician at the hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute. She attributed the rise of cardiovascular disease among younger women largely to unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Leading cause of death
According to the Department of Health (DoH), cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Abu Dhabi among men and women. The main risk factors for heart disease include diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, being overweight or obese, and family history of heart issues.
“It was previously believed that premenopausal women are protected from heart disease because of the beneficial effects of oestrogen on the arteries and cholesterol. When oestrogen is depleted in the post-menopausal state, this can lead to blockages of the arteries. Indeed, classic heart attacks due to plaque formation and rupture in the arteries of the heart are predominantly seen in postmenopausal women. However our clinic is now seeing an increase in risk factors and heart disease in premenopausal women, which echoes a global trend,” Dr Quraini said.
Rise in risk factors
“Premenopausal women are at now at a higher risk of developing heart disease because there is a higher incidence of diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and complicated pregnancies among this group. They are also at risk of suffering from heart attacks due to less frequent pathologies such as tears in the arteries of the heart or spontaneous coronary artery dissection,” she said.
Lack of awareness
According to Dr Quraini, many women are still unaware of these risk factors and that is why it takes longer to diagnose heart disease in women when compared to men.
A survey of 64 per cent of women who participated in a heart health survey of 1,000 residents commissioned by Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi in 2020 said that they did not suffer from the common risk factors for heart disease. But about 59 per cent of those women also said that they had not discussed their heart health with their doctor in the past year.
“Unfortunately, I see many women who have never had their cardiac risk assessed. They have not had their cholesterol level checked, been asked about their family history of heart disease, or have discussed any adverse outcomes of pregnancies with their physicians. As these risk factors go undetected, they are offered less aggressive treatment options at earlier stages,” Dr Quraini said.
She shared the example of a new mother in her early 30s who was treated for heart failure at the hospital. “We initially thought that her condition was related to her post-partum status, but on further investigation found that she was genetically predisposed to high cholesterol and her levels were extremely high. She had severe blockages in her arteries and needed a coronary bypass surgery. She was completely unaware of her condition,” Dr Quraini said.
Not prioritising their health
Another problem facing young women with families is the lack of time to prioritise their health, including regular exercise. She therefore advised women to apply small daily changes to their lifestyle and avoid quick fixes to get fit. “Women must avoid fad diets as this does more harm than good because they are not sustainable and can restrict key nutrients. This can cause a severe energy deficit, muscle loss and other deficiencies. Yo-yo dieting can lead to poor cardiovascular outcomes,” the doctor warned.
Instead, she says, eating less processed foods and adopting a Mediterranean diet, which is high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, fish and unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, along with 150 minutes of moderate to intensive activity a week, can help maintain a healthy heart.
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Just as susceptible
“The most important message that I try to communicate is that women are just as susceptible to heart disease and heart attacks as men. Most heart diseases can be prevented by knowing your risk and addressing them early,” Dr Quraini said.