Women’s health| Why heart attacks have no gender bias

1 Dec

Heart attacks are what happen to old, overweight men – or so I thought, until I heard about a senior female executive on the Board of a FTSE-100 company who recently dropped dead of a heart attack; and she wasn’t old, overweight or male.

Heart health is puzzling women (istockphoto/kroach)

It turns out that I’m not the only one who has little idea of how heart attacks are as much a threat to women as they are to men:  a survey by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) revealed that women are ‘in the dark’ about heart disease. Less than half (47%) of the women polled said they would call 999 immediately if they were suffering the symptoms of a heart attack, while 7% said they would ignore the warning signs and just carry on.

BHF statistics show that 40,000 women die of heart disease every year, which is three times as many as those who succumb to breast cancer – yet there is arguably more awareness of the risks and symptoms of breast cancer.

I applaud the BHF’s imaginative attempts to spread the message about women’s heart health, not just by doing surveys like this, but by ‘beating heart disease one laugh at a time’ with its Angina Monologues. This is a campaign that has lined up top UK comediennes, including Jo Brand and Victoria Wood, to stage a comedy night to raise awareness of heart disease among women (and, presumably, to reduce stress levels by giving everyone a laugh).

And it’s stress that has a huge impact on heart health. There are environmental factors that cause heart disease, and whose effect can be reduced by stopping smoking, eating healthily, avoiding salty and fatty foods, and exercising regularly. The Healthy Heart Handbook for Women also contains advice for keeping our hearts in tip-top shape. 

But what may be the most challenging factor for some women is keeping work-related stress levels under control. Research from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in the US says that women who have highly stressful jobs are 88% more likely to have a heart attack than their less-stressed colleagues.

What particularly struck me in this report is that it is women in stressful jobs “that offer little room for decision making or creativity” who are more at risk of a heart attack. In other words, women who work with their heads down, probably not in senior managerial roles, and perhaps who sacrifice their true potential for the sake of climbing the lucrative career ladder.

I have no idea if that was the case for the top executive who had the sudden heart attack – and who may have prompted other  high-flyers to ask themselves why they push themselves so hard. But these findings have made me think about the importance of laughter, being in charge of our own lives – and finding an outlet for our, often suppressed and forgotten, creativity.



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