Women's heart health

Heart disease affects women as well as men. It's important to know the symptoms of heart disease to look for and when to get help.

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for women in Scotland.

February is National Heart Month

Women are nearly 3 times as likely to die from coronary heart disease than breast cancer. Yet it's still often thought of as a man's disease.

Heart disease refers to any condition that affects the heart including:

  • heart attacks
  • heart failure
  • abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia)
  • heart valve disease
  • inherited or congenital heart disease

There are more than 100,000 women in Scotland living with coronary heart disease, which is a leading cause of heart attacks.

It's important that you know the signs of heart attack and other heart conditions, and when to seek medical attention.

Do

  • know the symptoms of a heart attack
  • get medical help immediately if you have symptoms of a heart attack
  • know the symptoms of heart failure or arrythmia (abnormal heart rhythm)
  • seek medical attention if you are pregnant and have chest pain or breathlessness that occurs with minimal exertion or when you are at rest
  • seek medical attention if you are pregnant and have chest pain or breathlessness that comes on suddenly or is not normal for you
  • talk to your healthcare professional if you have a heart condition and are planning pregnancy
  • reduce your risk of heart disease by making lifestyle changes

Don't

  • do not ignore symptoms of a heart attack
  • do not delay getting help if you have symptoms of a heart attack

Heart attack

A heart attack is a medical emergency. It's crucial to get treatment as soon as possible.

Different people can have different symptoms of a heart attack. But, women and men may experience some common symptoms.

Immediate action required: Phone 999 or go to A&E immediately if:

  • you have central chest pain or discomfort in your chest that doesn't go away – it may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing
  • the pain radiates down your left arm, or both arms, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach
  • you feel sick, sweaty, lightheaded or short of breath

British Heart Foundation: what is a heart attack? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw_Vv2WRG-A)

Women having a heart attack may be less likely to recognise the symptoms. You may think the symptoms are not important, or think they're caused by something else.

Women having a heart attack are more likely to delay getting help.

A heart attack disrupts blood flow to the heart. The longer this goes on, the higher the risk of:

  • permanent damage to the heart muscle
  • heart failure
  • life-threatening heart rhythms
  • death

If you delay getting medical attention and treatment, your chance of survival decreases.

Ethnicity and heart health

Your ethnicity can increase your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.

According to British Heart Foundation research, if you’re from a South Asian, African or African Caribbean background, your risk of developing some heart and circulatory diseases can be higher than white Europeans.

It's important to understand your individual risks.

Read further information about:

Pregnancy and heart disease

From the early stages of pregnancy there are lots of changes in a woman’s body, including to the heart and circulation. The heart needs to work harder, pumping up to 50% more blood volume than normal. The blood is also more prone to clotting. There are also extra demands on your heart around the time of birth. These demands can cause greater stress on your heart and circulation.

Pregnancy if you have a heart condition

Most people with a heart condition tolerate pregnancy well. But, depending on the nature of your heart condition, there may be risks to you and your baby.

You should avoid an unplanned pregnancy if you have a heart condition. This gives you time to talk to your healthcare professional about pregnancy and any risks there may be. It also gives time to make other healthy lifestyle changes such as losing weight or stopping smoking.

Further support is available from Scottish Obstetric Cardiology Network (SOCN). SOCN help women with a heart condition who are thinking about pregnancy, or who are pregnant.

Developing a heart condition in pregnancy

Some women develop heart problems for the first time in pregnancy.

Heart disease is a leading cause of maternal death in pregnancy in the UK.

Seek urgent medical help from your GP, labour ward or A&E department if you’re pregnant and have any of the following symptoms of heart disease.

Chest pain

Chest pain in pregnancy is not normal. If you have chest pain you should seek medical help. Chest pain or chest tightness while walking or exercising need to be investigated.

Go to A&E if you have severe sudden chest pain or chest pain that you feel through to your back (it may feel like tearing).

Breathlessness

Some breathlessness in later pregnancy can be normal.

Seek medical attention if you feel breathless at rest (especially when lying down) or with minimal effort.

Dizziness

Dizziness associated with chest pain or palpitations requires urgent medical attention.

If you have a blackout, you should go to A&E.

Palpitations

Palpitations are abnormal heartbeats that you're aware of.

If you feel faint, dizzy or get chest pain while having palpitations, then you must seek medical attention.

You should speak to a doctor if you have palpitations that last more than 10 minutes, even if you feel well otherwise.

Ethnicity

It's important to highlight that your ethnicity can increase your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases. Black women are at a higher risk of maternal mortality. If you feel like something isn’t right speak to a medical professional.

Read further information about:

Other heart conditions

Some heart conditions affect women more than men.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is when your heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened so cannot pump blood as well as it should.

Symptoms can include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • palpitations
  • nausea
  • vomiting

It's not known exactly what causes takotsubo cardiomyopathy. But, it's often brought on by emotional or physical distress.

Read further information about takotsubo cardiomyopathy

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD)

SCAD is a tear on the wall of a coronary artery (a large blood vessel), which supplies blood to your heart. It can sometimes lead to a heart attack.

Symptoms can include:

  • a feeling of heaviness or tightness in your chest – this may spread to your arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach
  • shortness of of breath
  • feeling sick
  • sweating
  • lightheadedness

Many people with SCAD will have few or no risk factors for heart disease. It's not yet known what causes it, and it's not thought to be preventable.

Read further information about SCAD

Microvascular angina

Microvascular angina is a problem with tiny blood vessels that supply blood to your heart. It may be caused when these tiny blood vessels:

  • cannot open up properly to let your blood flow
  • severely narrow, blocking blood flow to the heart

The main symptom of microvascular angina is chest pain. You may feel it at any time.

Microvascular angina is more common around the menopause.

Lifestyle changes can often improve symptoms.

Read further information about microvascular angina

Women's health plan

The Scottish Government is developing a Women’s Health Plan, aiming to reduce health inequalities for women and girls.