If you had to guess which condition most commonly affects women – breast cancer or heart disease – which one would you choose? Though you may think breast cancer, it’s actually heart disease that ranks as the number one killer of women in Canada. Actually, more women die of cardiovascular disease (the collective term for heart disease and stroke) than all cancers combined. That’s one big eye-opening fact.
You might also think that heart problems usually happen to older overweight men, but that’s also untrue. Canadian statistics show that stroke is responsible for 32 percent more deaths in women compared to men, and women are 16 percent more likely to die following a heart attack than men. In fact, if you’re a woman of childbearing age with certain risk factors, you may not be out of the woods. Let’s explore why this is.
Heart attacks don’t just happen to the elderly
These days, being on the younger side of 50 no longer gives you a pass when it comes to developing cardiovascular disease. Fast food diets, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and lack of physical exercise can all be risk factors for heart attack and stroke, even in women of childbearing age. Premenopausal women were once shielded against heart disease thanks to the protective effects of estrogen, but studies now show that can change depending on a variety of factors. Young diabetic women for example, are at a greater risk of developing heart disease because having diabetes cancels out the protective effects of estrogen.
The estrogen connection
Birth control pills are much safer now than they were years ago, but there are still a few heart-related things to be aware of if you take them and if you fit into a couple of categories. For instance, if you smoke or already have high blood pressure, oral contraceptives can take your blood pressure even higher, plus, they can also increase the risk of blood clots. If a blood clot happens to block blood flow to an artery that leads to the heart, the artery begins to die and a heart attack can result. In the same vein (no pun intended) consistently high blood pressure damages and weakens the brain’s blood vessels, shorting the brain of oxygen and causing a stroke.
Pregnancy conditions that affect the heart
You wouldn’t think that a healthy body that’s capable of growing life inside of it can be at risk for heart attack down the road, but it is. Women who develop preeclampsia, a condition that usually kicks in after the 20th week of pregnancy, have more than twice the risk of heart attack or stroke later in life. Though preeclampsia is unpredictable, women who already have elevated blood pressure or who are overweight before becoming pregnant have a much higher chance of developing it. The risk is even greater if a woman goes on to develop preeclampsia with each successive pregnancy. Preeclampsia is treatable, so be sure to ask your doctor about ways to manage the condition should you be diagnosed with it.
Gestational diabetes and heart disease risk
Some women pass off gestational diabetes as a temporary side effect of pregnancy. And while blood glucose levels might return to normal after the baby is born, the risk that both mom and baby might develop diabetes later in life is increased. So what’s the connection to heart disease and stroke? Quite simply, diabetes does a number on your blood vessels, and if they become damaged or weakened, circulation is compromised and not enough blood can travel to the heart or brain.
Disclosing family history is important
Unfortunately, there are cases where stroke can happen during childbirth or even up to a few weeks after. Sometimes underlying problems like pre-existing blood vessel malformations leading to blood clots can be the cause. It was once thought that six weeks post delivery was a safe window, but a new study now recommends being vigilant up to 12 as clotting issues can still happen within that time frame.
Signs of a blood clot
Blood clots can form in many places in the body. Though they often have no symptoms, there are some signs to be aware of that might indicate a clot might be present.
In the leg – swelling, pain, tenderness, pain in the calf when toes are stretched, bluish discolouration
In the heart – chest pain and a heavy feeling, light headedness and shortness of breath
In the brain – sudden, severe headache and difficulty speaking or seeing
In the lungs – chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, coughing up blood
No doubt your doctor will conduct a full physical when you become pregnant and monitor you throughout, but it is very important to disclose all history of heart disease in your family and any other related symptoms you feel are worth mentioning.
Being in the prime of your life is no reason to think that heart disease won’t happen to you. It’s actually the best time to adopt good lifestyle habits (if you haven’t already) to increase your chances of living a long, healthy life.
How can you decrease your heart disease risk?
Here are some quick facts from the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation:
- Up to 80% of premature heart disease and stroke is preventable by adopting healthy behaviours
- Nine in ten Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease and stroke
- Maintaining five or more healthy behaviours (not smoking; maintaining a healthy weight, regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet; and keeping high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels in control) is associated with an 88 per cent reduction in the risk of death from heart disease or stroke
- Individuals who consume greater than or equal to 10% but less than 25% of total energy (calories) from added sugar have a 30% higher risk of death from heart disease or stroke when compared to those who consume less than 10%. For those who consume 25% or more of calories from added sugar, the risk is nearly tripled
- Smoking is responsible for close to 15% of all heart disease and stroke deaths in Canada