Health A to Z

Heart disease

The leading cause of death in women, the risk of heart disease increases with age. Learn the signs to watch for with this overview.

heart disease causes symptoms treatments

While most women in Canada don’t realize it, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, according to the Heart & Stroke Foundatoin. Before menopause, estrogen tends to protect women against heart disease but around menopause, as the ovaries slowly stop producing estrogen, a woman’s risk of heart disease increases.

Heart disease causes There are many causes of heart disease. Coronary artery disease develops when plaque builds up, narrowing the arteries that supply blood to the heart. A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is slowed or stopped because of a blockage. Smoking, family history, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure all increase heart disease risk.

Heart disease symptoms Recognizing the symptoms of a heart attack could save a life. They include: chest pain or discomfort; pain in the arm, neck, jaw, shoulder or back; nausea, indigestion or vomiting; sweating or cool, clammy skin; difficulty breathing; and fear or anxiety. Some women may not experience chest pain but will feel unusually fatigued, have trouble sleeping or breathing, and experience anxiety and indigestion up to a month before a heart attack.

Heart disease diagnosis/tests If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, call an ambulance. If you’re having symptoms or are concerned about heart disease, see your doctor. The tests she’ll conduct will depend on what heart condition she suspects you might have, but may include a physical exam and taking your medical history. She may also order blood tests to check your cholesterol and triglycerides; a chest X-ray to get a picture of your heart, lungs and blood vessels; and an electrocardiogram (ECG), where a probe on your chest records electrical signals to check for an irregular heart rhythm. Your doctor may send you home wearing a holter monitor, a portable device that you wear for 24 to 72 hours to continuously record an ECG. Other tests to diagnose heart disease include an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound to show images of your heart, to name a few.

Heart disease treatment Heart disease is treatable with medications and surgeries. Some treatments are geared to specific conditions, such as angina, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms.

Heart disease prevention You cannot control certain risk factors such as a family history of heart disease or your age if you’re menopausal or post-menopausal, however, you can lower your risk for heart disease. Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check and take care of your health to guard against diabetes. Quit smoking or never start, maintain a healthy body weight, get regular exercise and find strategies to reduce stress in your life, such as spending time with friends and on vacation.

More info from Chatelaine
20 things you need to know about your heart
Heart-healthy meal plan

Outside resources
Heart & Stroke Foundation