Louise Buchanan - thumbnail.jpgBy Dr Louise Buchanan, consultant cardiologist at North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust

“Many people are not aware that women are twice as likely to die of coronary heart disease, the main cause of a heart attack, as breast cancer in the UK. It is the single biggest killer of women worldwide yet it is still not always perceived to be a ‘woman’s problem’. More than 800,000 women in the UK are living with heart disease with 35,000 women admitted to hospital following a heart attack each year in the UK.

“The NHS has launched a campaign to help the public understand more about the symptoms of a heart attack. This is because a survey revealed more than half did not know that sweating, light-headedness, chest pain that feels like indigestion and feeling sick were also symptoms of a heart attack.

“With the odds stacked against women it is vital that we do not see heart disease as a ‘male’ disease and that we encourage women to recognise the symptoms and seek medical attention quickly. Rapid treatment is essential, as the aim is to restore blood flow to the affected part of the heart muscle as soon as possible to limit the amount of potential damage to the heart.

“During the pandemic, patients were less likely to attend hospital with other acute medical conditions due to the concern around infection. This meant that patients presented later following heart attacks, therefore not getting the immediate treatment that is often required to prevent heart muscle damage and death.

“Across north Cumbria, we want people to dial 999 as soon as they start experiencing symptoms and they can be brought via ambulance to the Heart Centre at the Cumberland Infirmary where we offer 24/7 emergency treatment, which can be life-saving.

Common signs and symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • chest pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn't go away. It may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing
  • the pain may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to your neck, jaw, back or stomach 
  • you may also feel sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath

“Other less common symptoms include a sudden feeling of anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack or excessive coughing or wheezing.

“Women usually present later as they often don’t recognise the symptoms. Alternative symptoms are not widely known to the public and therefore not promptly recognised by the individual so they can seek help. The alternative symptoms can include shortness of breath or back discomfort only, with no chest pain at all. This also leads to a delay in diagnosis when the patient arrives at hospital.

“As a woman, hormones may give you some protection from heart disease in your pre-menopause years. However, post-menopause your risk rises and continues to rise as you get older therefore it is important to be aware of the following risk factors:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • being overweight
  • not doing enough physical activity

“It is recommended that all women over the age of 40 visit their local GP or nurse for a health check to check their cardiovascular risk. This check may help to highlight anything that could put you at increased risk of having a heart attack. Identifying and managing risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol early on could help lower your risk of a heart attack in the future. If you have a family history of heart or circulatory disease make sure you tell your doctor or nurse.

“I am very passionate about ensuring that we no longer talk about heart disease as a typically male disease and we start to see an improvement in the number of women receiving rapid treatment for heart disease and therefore having better outcomes.”