With August drawing to a close and the final quarter of the year well within sight, there’s a natural tendency to lean towards focusing – inter alia – on all the New Year Resolutions that were made at the beginning of the year and are somehow still languishing in the ‘To Do’ category, with every [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The number one killer of women around the world is…


With August drawing to a close and the final quarter of the year well within sight, there’s a natural tendency to lean towards focusing – inter alia – on all the New Year Resolutions that were made at the beginning of the year and are somehow still languishing in the ‘To Do’ category, with every intention of being crossed off the list…eventually…

One of those Resolutions for me, was to take better care of my health – for all the obvious reasons linked to being a responsible person and parent, but with a healthy dose of vanity thrown in, for good measure. In my quest to list the things that adult women need to look out for in order to live life to its healthy fullest, I came across a surprising statistic: The number one killer of women around the world, was Heart Disease. According to the World Health Organisation’s health report in 2013, whilst ‘Breast cancer is the leading cancer killer among women aged 20–59 years worldwide, globally, Cardiovascular Disease – often thought to be a “male” problem – is the number one killer of women.’ According to Hanna Nicole of Medical News Today,the top 10 leading causes of death in the US in 2013 are Cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease and suicide, with heart disease heading the list.

So why are statistics showing that whilst the detection, prevention and treatment of men with Cardiovascular disease has been showing a steady decline over the past 25 years, the same cannot be said for women? According to Clinical Research Associates (CRI) Inc, in ‘Why Woman Are Prone to Heart Disease’, “There is a common – and dangerous – misconception that heart disease is not nearly as much of a problem for women as it is for men. While men in their 40s are at higher risk, women become more at risk as they age. Eventually women are as prone to heart disease as men. In fact it causes more deaths than all forms of cancer combined.’

Which of course then begs the question, how and why are these symptoms different in women and why is it that women can go untreated and undiagnosed long before having a heart attack. CRI Inc observes that ‘Typically men experience the well-known heart attack signs of chest pain, arm pain, and shortness of breath. Women’s symptoms of nausea, fatigue, and dizziness are quite different. They are often diagnosed as stress. The statistics too are worrying: ‘A woman going into the hospital for a heart attack has a higher death rate and greater risk of complications; A premenopausal woman who has a heart attack has twice the death rate of a similarly aged man; 64% of women who die suddenly of heart disease have no previous symptoms and more women than men will die within the first year after a heart attack.’

The American Heart Association (AHA) in their campaign, ‘Go Red for Women’, when discussing ‘Gender and Heart Disease’ concurs that ‘Men and women alike can experience the well-known heart attack symptoms like gripping chest pains and breaking out in a cold sweat. But women can also have subtler, less recognisable symptoms such as pain or discomfort in the stomach, jaw, neck or back, nausea and shortness of breath. As a result, women are often unaware that what they’re experiencing is a heart attack. So what happens? Women blow off the warning signs, assuming something else is the problem. To add to the problem, women’s healthcare providers may misdiagnose these symptoms, and the result is that women discover their heart disease when it’s too late. Men, on the other hand, seem to benefit from having more frequently participated in  clinical trials, and more aggressive diagnostic testing and treatment. So is it any wonder that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women?’

The AHA sheds further light on the matter by claiming that ‘Testing, treatment, awareness and symptoms aside, none of these factors explain the entire reason why heart disease affects men and women differently. A study reported in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association may offer a clue: Researchers found that the size and pumping ability of the right side of the heart differs by gender’. “The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen, so all types of lung diseases — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, and sleep apnea — can affect the right side of the heart,” said Steven Kawut, M.D., M.S. and study author….And guess what? The right ventricle is larger in men than in women. So if it loses its pumping ability or becomes weaker, heart problems are likely to ensue. Also, the blood vessel walls of the very small arteries that branch out from the coronary arteries are more likely to be damaged in women as compared to men. And doctors are still learning about the role hormones play in women’s heart health.”

I for one, have decided there is no merit in waiting until the end of the year to hurriedly try and salvage a Resolution made over 8 months ago. My wonderfully capable GP (General Practitioner) too is relieved that I am adhering to the advice my female friends have been extremely vocal and diligent about giving, about being more informed, aware and proactive about taking care of my own health.

‘Be kind to your heart’ is no longer a slogan used to depict recovery following a disastrous romantic escapade or a tin of breakfast oats. It is in fact, a very real message sent out to women and men, avoid the dangers of damaging their hearts. Unfortunately very little of the above paints a picture that inspires a whole lot of hope in us women with regards to avoiding a heart attack. Fortunately however, it most certainly sketches a vivid picture that jolts a woman into taking active steps to ensure she doesn’t become part of the dismal statistic.


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