Thanks to the hugely successful fundraising campaign that sees our supermarket shelves stacked with pink-packaged products every October, Australian women are all too aware of breast cancer and the need to take preventative measures against the disease. But with women in Australia four times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer, why don’t we hear more about it?
We caught up with Professor James Tatoulis, Chief Medical Advisor at The Heart Foundation, before the May 6 launch of this year's Heart Week to find out why women often overlook the risk of heart disease, and to get some of his tips for how to maintain a healthier heart.
Related article: Heart disease: are you at risk?
Professor Tatoulis says the common misconception that heart disease is a 'man's disease' means women often don’t pay enough attention to this aspect of their health.
"The media plays an important role in shaping the public's perceptions of heart disease," Professor Tatoulis explains. "Heart disease is often linked to the deaths of prominent middle aged men, while their female equivalents are associated with other diseases such as breast cancer."
Another reason women often think they're less at risk of heart disease than men is that female hormones keep women somewhat protected from certain diseases for up to ten years longer than men.
"Even in situations where there is a family history of heart disease, women do not realise they are at risk until it’s too late," Professor Tatoulis explains.
According to Tatoulis, late diagnosis often occurs because many women downplay their health issues, and tend to put the needs of their spouse and children ahead of their own.
Know the risks
Family history and age are the two main factors that contribute to heart disease. "If even one parent has heart disease, it doubles a person’s risk," says Tatoulis. "And if both parents are sufferers, you are 4-5 times more likely to get heart disease than somebody whose parents are not," he says.
Related article: Eating red meat increases risk of cancer and heart disease death
For most people the recommended age to start getting regular heart checks is 45. In cases of a strong family history, Professor Tatoulis recommends regular check-ups from age 35.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and stress are other high risk factors, as are poor diet and lack of exercise. Tatoulis cites the rather frightening statistic that "…ninety per cent of Australian women have two or more of these factors present at any one time."
Spot the symptoms
The most common symptoms of heart disease in both men and women are chest discomfort or heaviness with exertion.
"In about 40 per cent of heart attack cases, [women] get no symptoms whatsoever, or they get less obvious symptoms such as nausea or stomach pain," says Professor Tatoulis.
"As a result, women don’t seek medical attention as commonly or rapidly as men, resulting in greater fatalities. And when they do seek attention it tends to be too late."
Professor Tatoulis says the most important prevention for both men and women is to avoid smoking. By quitting, a person can lower their risk of heart disease to that of a non-smoker within five years.
Related article: Dieters at higher risk of heart disease
Regular health checks, especially cholesterol and blood pressure tests, are also important to help prevent heart disease.
Other measures include maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise and avoiding fatty, fried foods that are high in cholesterol.
"Women in particular need to become more aware of the risks and avoid delays when seeking medical advice," says James. "Women need to look after their own health as well as that of their families. Awareness and delay lead to worse outcomes for women than men," he says.
Go Red for heart health
Check out the Heart Foundation’s campaign to raise awareness of heart disease at www.goredforwomen.org.au.The GoRed Challenge starts on
Monday, June 4 and encourages women to get active, lower their cholesterol and improve their nutrition.
Watch: Tomatoes reduce heart disease risk