More women die from preventable cardiovascular disease than the total number of women who die from all cancers, TB, HIV/Aids and malaria combined. It claims 8.6 million women worldwide every year. Yet the risk of death or disability due to heart disease and stroke is largely underestimated in women.
It’s for this reason that the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the World Heart Federation have chosen to highlight the impact of these diseases on women and children this September in Heart Awareness Month.
"This theme is more relevant than ever when you consider that women in developing countries are more at risk than their first-world sisters," says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.
"In South Africa, the proportion of cardiovascular disease-related deaths in women aged 35–59 years is 150% higher than that of women in the US. Also, women who have a heart attack are more likely to die than men of the same age.
"Cardiovascular disease accounts for a third of all deaths in women worldwide; and in South Africa it remains one of the major killers with one in four women under age 60 affected by some sort of heart condition," she says.
80% of deaths preventable
This is entirely preventable because 80% of deaths due to cardiovascular disease can be prevented through a healthy diet, physical activity, avoidance of tobacco products and moderate alcohol use, according to World Heart Federation research.
South Africa is recognised as a global leader in legislating against tobacco, reducing trans fat levels, tightening food labelling regulations, and most recently, reducing salt in processed foods. While this legislation is essential, South Africans need to take responsibility at home too.
Dr Mungal-Singh says that small changes to daily eating habits can protect hearts and prevent obesity: these include not adding sugar to food, avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages (including canned fizzy drinks) and refined carbohydrates, and choosing foods low in salt, and high in fibre and “good” fats. Being active for only thirty minutes a day is massively beneficial, as is cutting out tobacco use altogether and moderating alcohol use.
"It’s important for women to have a thorough medical assessment with their family doctor or gynaecologist before starting the oral contaceptive pill, as the risk of stroke dramatically increases for women on the Pill (stroke accounts for more deaths among women than men due to this unique risk factor). Oestrogen stimulates the production of clotting factors – especially in women who are over 35 and who smoke," she says.
Early warning signs
According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, 71% of women experience some early warning signs, but these often do not include the classic "tightening" chest pain. Women’s symptoms are different to men’s and they are also more likely to ignore warning signs than men.
Symptoms to look out for include: abdominal pain, a fluttering heartbeat, shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and/or fainting, and swollen feet.
"Early detection through regular tests and knowing the warning signs are essential to help reduce the incidence of heart attack and stroke. This month we challenge all South Africans to ‘know their numbers’, by measuring blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and body mass index (BMI)," says Dr Mungal-Singh.
"Heart attack and stroke are no longer the domain of adult males; women and children are increasingly at risk. This month do yourself a favour and measure up."
Image: Heart attack from iStock
September 2012 is Heart Awareness Month and 29 September is World Heart Day. This year, the HSF and World Heart Federation highlight the impact of heart disease on women and children and call for the protection of their hearts. For more information, visit www.heartfoundation.co.za.
(Reviewed, September 2012)