This week is ‘Women’s Health Week’, a national week championed by Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, a fantastic organisation that actively works in public health, research, clinical services and policy in Australia. During this week they’ve focused on various health issues for women and run events, promoted other events and initiatives, and raised awareness of women’s health issues.
Each year when this week rolls around, I reflect on my own health and this time I’m thinking of cardiovascular health. Women experience very different symptoms than the stereotypical ones that we hear about for men when having a heart attack so I’m keen to help educate women, particularly post-menopausal women about what they should look out for.
One of my hobbies, when I’m off the bike, is family history, and while it’s interesting to learn about my ancestors, there’s also some important health information.
My paternal grandmother Rita died of coronary artery disease at age 67. Her parents Zelia and Timothy both had a condition called atherosclerosis which is plaque build-up in the arteries. They both lived into their 70s which wasn’t bad in the era in which they lived, but I’m thinking they could have done much more to have a healthy life if they’d had the same amount of information that I’m able to access. My father, who is in his 80s had heart surgery last year to replace a valve but also to remove plaque, so it makes me realise that I need to be aware of the history of heart disease.
Every two years I go for a check-up with my GP who looks at all the risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity (and particularly fat around the waist), diet and activity levels. So far, I’m showing no signs of following in the footsteps of Rita, Zelia & Tim but I don’t want to be complacent.
My awareness of women’s heart disease is also heightened by a good friend of mine Tina McCarthy who runs a women’s cycle coaching business called Wheel Women in Melbourne. A couple of years ago, Tina was diagnosed with a heart condition that sadly took her dad when he was in his early 50s, but Tina has not let it slow her down as she shows in this great video from Specialized. Tina is grateful that the condition has been diagnosed and she is learning to live with it.
What are the symptoms?
The excellent Jean Hailes for Women’s Health website tells us that the symptoms of a heart attack in women can include feelings of pain, pressure, tightness, heaviness which may be felt in the chest, neck, jaw, arm/s, back, shoulder/s. You may also feel short of breath, nauseous (sick), a cold sweat, dizzy. So it’s certainly a long way from the stereotype of chest pain and tingling arms.
Jean Hailes for Women’s Health reports that women don’t always feel pain in the centre of the chest when having a heart attack. Rather than the classic chest pain men often feel, women may feel breathless, and have nausea, back pain, tightness or discomfort in the arms, and a general feeling of being unwell. In a large study of 1.1 million people who had heart attacks, 42% of women did not feel any chest pain.
How to learn more
The Jean Hailes for Women’s Health website is an excellent place to start learning about heart disease. You should also consider regular check-ups, learn about your family’s health history, and of course live a healthy lifestyle.
My strongest recommendation is to ride a bike regularly. It’s fun, fantastic exercise, awesome for heart health, and a great way to socialise, enjoy nature – the list is endless!