Women's symptoms for heart issues can be different to men's Image Credit: iStock

While it’s true that the majority of heart attack victims are male, cardiovascular disease can also affect women. The good news though is that the vast majority of cases are avoidable.

“Eighty per cent of cases of cardiovascular disease or deaths are preventable and that is something that we should pay attention to,” says Dr Fahad Baslaib, Cardiologist and CEO of Rashid Hospital.

According to the World Heart Federation, cardiovascular disease represents one-third of all deaths among women globally and one cause is related to the fact that women often show different symptoms compared to men and therefore end up being under-diagnosed or under-treated.

“Women’s atypical symptoms can be shortness of breath or palpitations — it’s not the typical symptoms such as chest pain that goes to the heart,” says Dr Baslaib. “There is no scientific explanation for this and I don’t think that it’s the hormones or anything related to that.”

Women’s atypical symptoms can be shortness of breath or palpitations — it’s not the typical symptoms such as chest pain.

- Dr Fahad Baslaib, Cardiologist and CEO of Rashid Hospital

The typical symptoms that lead up to a heart attack that most of us know are sharp chest pains and pain in the arms, but the atypical symptoms that can affect women are not widely known.

“Symptoms can include any sort of pain in the chest area, on the left side and even the right side should be considered. Any unexplained shortness of breath, palpitations and gastric pain that doesn’t resolve can also be symptoms.”

Dr Baslaib explains that men can mistake epigastric pain as a symptom of heart problems due to the physical proximity of the two structures. “The oesophagus is located just behind the heart so symptoms can be misunderstood. Sometimes people with gastric symptoms might feel that it is related to cardiovascular issues,” he says.

Typically, women are less susceptible to heart attacks as they are protected to an extent by oestrogen. But following menopause, their risk increases. “There is a misconception that heart disease is not common in women. When they have their periods they have a protective factor because of their hormones but after menopause, they are not protected anymore.”

Risk factors

As with men, women who make unhealthy lifestyle choices or if they have a family history of cardiovascular disease, then Dr Baslaib recommends a medical check-up. “Heart attacks can occur all of a sudden, either for men or women. People won’t necessarily feel sick before they suffer a heart attack, hence the name attack.

“For those people who have risk factors such as a family history of cardiovascular issues — diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, a sedentary lifestyle and of course smoking — these people should attend regular check-ups and if they have any of the symptoms we have described, they should be examined.”

At DHA, check-ups are thorough and involve blood tests, electrocardiogram assessments and a clinical exam, which includes measuring their blood pressure. If any cardiovascular issues are discovered, then a treatment programme is established based on the individual patient’s needs. “If a patient has a narrowing in the arteries and reduced function of the heart, then beta blockers may be one of the medications prescribed,” says Dr Baslaib.

“We assess each patient on a case-by-case basis. If they have suffered a heart attack then there is a different method of treatment. For example, if a patient has suffered a heart attack they will require an angiogram to check the blockage and see how to fix it. We need to know it needs medical treatment or if it needs to be stented or requires bypass surgery. Accordingly they may need to be on medication such as aspirin.”

DHA has worked to improve awareness of women’s cardiovascular health through a number of different initiatives. “We have held general campaigns for the public and we also have programmes for women under the World Heart Federation and this includes awareness campaigns for cardiovascular disease in women. Last year, we held campaigns with Al-Futtaim shopping malls, where Dubai Health Authority carried out screenings for ladies in the malls. We screened thousands of ladies.”

The key message from all of these campaigns is that the vast majority of cardiovascular issues are avoidable for both men and women. “Prevention is better than treatment. I would like to advise people to live healthily — eat healthily, exercise and don’t smoke.”