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Heart disease and women – what you should know about other conditions that put you at higher risk

Most of us perceive breast cancer as the greatest health problem for women, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Yet the Heart Research Institute  says women are more likely to die from heart disease than any other disease. It is the #1 number one cause of death in Canada for women over the age of 55.

A number of medical conditions can even increase heart risks for women. 

Women and inflammatory conditions

Two in particular are rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Dr. Karin Humphries, Scientific Director at the BC Centre for Improved Cardiovascular Health says, “What rheumatoid arthritis and lupus have in common is they are inflammatory conditions. First, we know that females are more likely to develop inflammatory conditions than men and secondly, inflammation is intimately involved in the development of atherosclerosis, a key factor in the development of coronary disease. This issue is so critical that a new sub-speciality within the field of cardiology focusing on inflammation is being formed which is very promising.”

Dr. Karin Humphries

Depression another risk factor for women’s heart disease

Another trigger for potential heart issues is depression, which is more prevalent in women than men. Those with depression are more likely to have risk factors associated with heart disease. These include a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking, poor diet and overeating, and excessive alcohol consumption. Skipping important medications also plays a role and generally, depressed individuals are not taking care of themselves as they should.

Examinations at the doctor’s office typically involve checking blood pressure and cholesterol levels. “The medical community is becoming aware that there are other important pieces to this puzzle that need to be addressed including inflammation and depression,” says Dr. Humphries. Physicians need to screen for depression and treat it to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease.”

Woman who had certain conditiions during pregnancy are at risk

Pregnant women face unique risk factors for heart disease. Pre-eclampsia occurs when women develop very, very high blood pressure during pregnancy. Gestational diabetes is diabetes that develops during pregnancy. Women remain prone to diabetes and high blood pressure later, even if not pregnant, and their lifetime risk of heard disease also increases. 

Another new development is the sub-speciality field of CardioOncology, which studies how cancer therapies impact cardiac health. Women who have been treated for breast cancer also need to be extra diligent about their heart health. “We think it’s related to the chemotherapy and the radiation they were given to their chests so this also now increases their risk of cardiac disease,” says Dr. Humphries.

Dr. Humphries says, “I think it’s a big step forward that we are now developing these two sub-speciality areas of Cardiology to look at inflammatory issues related to cardiac disease and survivors of breast cancer.” While medical professionals are becoming more proactive and are increasingly more aware of the unique factors contributing to female heart disease, women are advised to have frank discussions with their care providers and share their histories.

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