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Heart Disease is the Leading Cause of Premature Death in Canadian Women

Here’s what you need to know


Globally, cardiovascular diseases affect one out of three women, yet women everywhere are under-studied, under-diagnosed, under-treated and under-aware when it comes to their cardiovascular health. Worse, considering that 80 per cent of a woman’s risk factors are within her control, heart disease is largely preventable.

Why is heart disease different in women? Gender plays a role — how much time you spend doing housework, whether you are a someone’s primary caregiver and whether you have emotional support at home — add up to extra stress that affects women disproportionately, contributing not just to mental health issues but also to cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

Two-thirds of research into heart disease and stroke is based on men, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. But researchers for the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Alliance are working to change that.

Cardiac researchers, like Dr. Colleen Norris of the University of Alberta, want women to know the risks and warning signs.

The “Hollywood heart attack” stereotype doesn’t fit women, said Norris, which means their symptoms are often missed. The causes of heart attack and the risk factors are very different between men and women. Some risks for women can arise at an unexpectedly early age, including during pregnancy.

Norris said it’s on women to know their own health risks, whether it’s eating too many processed foods high in salt or saturated fat, not getting enough sleep or exercise, or inherited factors. One of the biggest risks that often goes unrecognized is stress, which can be traced back to the gender imbalance.

Know the warning signs:

  • An abrupt change in how you feel
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Sharp pain in the upper body
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Sudden or unusual tiredness
  • Unexplained nausea
  • Light-headedness or shortness of breath

Norris’ research has shown that 300 women a year present at an Alberta emergency department with cardiac symptoms, are discharged and go on to suffer a heart attack within 30 days. There are tools you can use to advocate for yourself in the healthcare system.

Make sure you’re heard:

  • Make it clear your symptoms are not normal for you
  • Ask your doctor to assess your risk by testing your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar
  • Insist on an electrocardiogram and blood tests that can diagnose a heart attack
  • Brainstorm questions beforehand and take notes. Ask for definitions of medical jargon that you don’t understand
  • Know what actions will be taken next, and what you should do if you feel symptoms again
  • Follow up on test results and to ensure that prescribed treatments are working
  • Ask to see a doctor that specializes in heart problems

Exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, managing stress, minimizing substances like alcohol, tobacco and vapes, and getting regular checkups are among the ways that women can reduce their risks.

On Sunday, February 13, Edmontonians will wear red in recognition of Wear Red Canada, a country-wide initiative to promote women’s heart and vascular health. As part of the 2023 campaign, several virtual and onsite events and activities are being held throughout Edmonton. Canadians are encouraged to take pictures with friends, family and colleagues donning red clothing and share them on social media using the hashtags #WearRedCanada and #HerHeartMatters. Learn more at WearRedCanada.ca.