Men or women - who has the higher risk of heart attack?


Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women across the world. Is heart disease a condition that women need to pay more attention to? And are symptoms of a heart attack the same in men and women?

"I see many men each year, to have their cholesterol and blood pressure checked and to assess their risk of heart disease, but I see less than half the number of women for this reason," says Johannesburg-based cardiologist Dr Tony Dalby. "Women are more familiar with the risk of uterine and breast cancer but are not aware of their risk of heart attack. Yet more women die of cardiovascular disease than die of cancer. We need to create awareness that women are not free of heart attack risk."

Globally, CVDs are the number 1 cause of death

Over and above cancers, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the number 1 cause of death globally. "More people die annually from CVDs than from any other cause. In America, Go Red for Women is the American Heart Association's campaign to raise awareness that 1 in 3 women will die of heart disease or stroke. 17.7 million people died from CVDs in 2015. That's 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, an estimated 7.4 million were due to coronary heart disease and 6.7 million were due to stroke. "The incidence of heart attack exceeds that of stroke," explains Dr Dalby. "But, the two together have major impact on health and quality of life. And, it's clear that the South African incidence of coronary artery disease has increased across every population group."

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked. "Heart muscle dies without blood supply," explains Dr Dalby. This happens when coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood slowly become thicker and harder from a build-up of fat, cholesterol and other substances, called plaque. If the plaque breaks open and a blood clot forms, that blocks the blood flow and a heart attack occurs. The heart muscle damage increases the longer an artery stays blocked. Once the muscle dies, the result is permanent scarring. "With a scar in your heart, the heart doesn't function properly and you may die at some future date from heart failure or from a sudden cardiac arrest."

Would you know if you had heart-burn, or if you were having a heart attack?

Crushing chest pain? That's what most people think they will feel if they are having a heart attack. But that's not always the case. "A heart attack may not be the worst pain ever," explains Dr Dalby. "Some patients do develop severe pain but more commonly the pain may seem bearable so that the heart attack can be misinterpreted as something else."

Generally, symptoms include:

  • an ache in the chest confused as indigestion or gas-like pain
  • an uncomfortable feeling in the centre of the chest and going into the arm, neck or shoulder
  • pressure or pain in the centre of the chest which may spread to either arm
  • upper back, shoulder, or throat pain
  • jaw pain or pain that spreads up to the jaw
  • breathlessness or fatigue
  • a pain in the tummy or the neck or teeth
  • discomfort in the stomach
  • breaking out in a cold sweat
  • nausea and shortness of breath
  • unusual fatigue lasting for several days or sudden severe fatigue, light-headedness
  • sleep disturbances
  • anxiety

Leading risk factors for cardiovascular disease

  • Do you smoke?
  • Are you diabetic?
  • Do you have high cholesterol?
  • Do you have high blood pressure (hypertension)?
  • Is your diet unhealthy?
  • Are you overweight or obese?
  • Are you inactive?
  • Are you consuming too much alcohol?
  • Have you had a previous heart attack, stroke or arterial disease?

These are the scenarios that raise your risk of heart disease.

Live to prevent ever having to deal with CVDs

In one of the greatest ironies facing the planet, studies show that up to 80% of CVD-related premature deaths - 80% of the deaths attributable to the number one killer of people worldwide (in people under 65 years of age), are preventable through a healthy lifestyle

It's important to know your health status.

Even if you feel fine, visit your GP or a clinic for a general check-up once a year, or book your screening tests to track your key health indicators on a regular basis. Taking steps towards prevention and early treatment of hypertension and other factors, will help ensure a healthier heart.

Log in

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id

Please click here to login into Discovery Digital Id