Shaking up the perception of gender differences in heart health.
Is heart disease really a man’s disease?

Today, as we mark International Women’s Day and the beginning of salt awareness week, this blog aims to raise awareness about women’s heart health and serve as a reminder for Irish women to be mindful and proactive in the management of heart health and wellness.

There is often a misconception that heart disease predominantly affects men, while in fact, worldwide, heart disease is the single biggest killer of women; 1 in 2 women will die from heart disease. Irish women are seven times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer.

Signs and symptoms of heart attacks in women can be different and sometimes more subtle from that in men. Symptoms in women include:

  • Chest discomfort: squeezing, uncomfortable pressure or pain in the centre of the chest, that lasts for more than a few minutes.
  • Indigestion or gas-like pain, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness and fainting.
  • Discomfort and/or pain spreading to other areas of the upper body such as the shoulders, neck, jaw or upper arms.
  • Shortness of breath, unexplained weakness, particularly in the left arm, or fatigue, anxiety or unusual nervousness.

The good news?

Up to 80% of all heart disease is preventable through lifestyle change and modifying risk factors associated with heart disease. These modifiable risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Inactivity

Heart disease risk factors that affect women more than men include:

  • Smoking: Smoking is a greater risk factor for heart disease in women than in men.
  • Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease compared to men.

Non-modifiable risk factors specific to females include:

  • Menopause: Low levels of oestrogen after menopause pose a significant risk of developing disease in smaller blood vessels.
  • Pregnancy complications: High blood pressure or gestational diabetes during pregnancy can both increase the mother’s long-term risk of sustained hypertension  and diabetes; which in turn increase a woman’s likelihood of developing heart disease.

Blood pressure and heart disease

High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for heart disease. 23.5% of females over the age of 45 in Ireland have clinically diagnosed high blood pressure. However, a further 31.5% of women have undiagnosed high blood pressure and are therefore not being treated. So how do we reduce high blood pressure?

  • Reduce salt intake to 5g/day
  • Exercise regularly
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a low-fat, balanced diet- including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Reduce alcohol consumption

Salt intake and blood pressure

Reducing salt in the diet has been shown to reduce high blood pressure.  The recommended daily allowance of salt is 5g/day however women in Ireland consume approximately 8.5g salt/day. A reduction of 3g/day salt intake would reduce stroke mortality by an estimated 13% and coronary heart disease mortality by 10%. The addition of salt at the table or in cooking by individuals can represent up to 20%-30% of a person’s total salt intake. Individuals need to cut back on the high levels of salt added during cooking and at the table as well as ensuring they read product labels, select low salt or salt free options when choosing products.

In conclusion

Women need to make their heart health a priority from a young age by keeping a close eye on their blood pressure through regular monitoring. Despite the availability of a variety of different antihypertensive drugs the rates of heart disease and deaths from heart disease in Irish females remains too high. Prevention is better than cure, therefore it is important that women are supported to take control of modifiable risk factors and reduce their risk of heart disease.

Ciara Goland is a PhD candidate in the SHE Research Group. Ciara’s research focuses on investigating the impact of variations in salt patterns on night-time blood pressure. It is anticipated her findings will inform the public on optimal patterns of salt intake to lower the risk of heart disease.