Why more women die from heart disease than men

Woman having a heart attack

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Heart disease is normally considered to be a man's problem.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress, smoking and drinking too much are all common health issues for men of a certain age - but the reality is that women suffer more.

Heart and circulatory disease kills more than 82,000 women in the UK each year - compared with 79,000 men.

So why are women at risk and how can they protect themselves from the biggest killer of women in the UK?

Facts and figures

  • 82,000 women die from heart disease, strokes in the UK
  • 79,000 men die from heart disease, strokes in the UK
  • 3.5 million women in the UK live with some form of heart or circulatory disease - the same number as men
  • Globally, 8.6 million women and 8.7 million men die from heart disease every year

Dr Jane Flint, a consultant cardiologist, has been caring for women with heart disease for more than 20 years.

She says women tended to get coronary disease five to 10 years later than men, but now it's younger women who are increasingly at risk from "vascular events".

In fact, women under 50 with heart problems are faring worse then older women, Dr Flint says.

"Young patients don't recognise they have a problem. They are not recognising they are at risk - and other people aren't recognising it either.

"All women should be aware of the risks and accept they are vulnerable."

Rachel Boothroyd Rachel was treated for a blocked artery at 37

There are a number of risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke. The main ones centre on lifestyle and how we look after our bodies.

Being overweight, eating unhealthily, smoking, drinking and stress can all contribute to an unhealthy heart.

Equally important is a family history of cardiovascular disease, which means an increased risk of developing the condition.

Dr Flint is concerned that younger women are now smoking more than they used to and are also putting on weight, which is leading to more cases of diabetes during pregnancy.

'Living an illusion'

Rachel Boothroyd was working as a lawyer in London, at the age of 37, when she started to get breathing problems which gradually worsened. Before long, she was experiencing pain in her chest, neck and down her arms.

Women and hearts

After the menopause, women's risk of getting heart disease goes up significantly. But there are simple ways to protect yourself.

  • Get your health checked - particularly your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If these are higher than they should be, this increases your risk of heart disease and you may need medication.
  • Stop smoking to protect your heart. You're twice as likely to have a heart attack if you smoke.
  • Try to do more exercise. You need to do at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (cycling or fast walking) every week.
  • Lose weight if you need to. About six in every 10 women in England are either overweight or obese. Excess weight puts a strain on the heart.
  • Drink only a moderate amount of alcohol each week, eat a balanced diet and manage your stress.

But it didn't occur to anyone - least of all herself - that she could have heart problems.

"I had classic symptoms. It was so obvious, but even a doctor friend dismissed it. He said I just wasn't as fit as I used to be.

"I was living in an illusion. The pain was so horrendous I used to go swimming so nobody would see me crying."

When she did eventually go to her GP, she was referred to a cardiologist, but even then heart issues were thought unlikely because she was fit and healthy.

"Because I was a woman, no one thought of it. They kept saying, 'I'm sure there won't be anything in it.'

In fact, Rachel had a 99% blockage in the main artery of the heart. She was extremely close to having a major heart attack - one from which she was told she would not have survived.

Rachel puts her heart problems down to the stress of working long hours in the City. Now 45, she has moved to York for a calmer existence, and now has a four-year old son.

Share experiences

Like many young women, her near-heart attack was a wake-up call which prompted lifestyle changes but there are still too many who refuse to believe it could happen to them.

In response, the British Heart Foundation have set up a Woman's Room where women can share experiences and ask questions of experts.

While genes have a large part to play in the health of women's hearts, there are also lots of factors which can be controlled ourselves in our day-to-day living.

Professor Anna Dominiczak, head of the college of medical, veterinary and life sciences at Glasgow University, one of the UK cities most affected by heart disease, says women must look after themselves better.

"All of us should know what our blood pressure and our cholesterol is - but many women don't."

Most importantly, she adds, there are always some factors which are easier to control than others.

"Smoking is first on my list. It's a risk factor everyone can do without."

Women - you have been warned.

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