Women's heart health

Heart disease is a major cause of ill health and death for women in Scotland.

Urgent advice: 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 have severe sudden chest pain or chest pain that you feel through to your back (it may feel like tearing)
  • you feel sick, sweaty, lightheaded or short of breath

A heart attack is a medical emergency. Do not delay getting help if you have symptoms.

Heart disease in women

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

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 or aortic dissection
  • know the symptoms of heart failure or arrhythmia (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

Heart attack

A heart attack is a medical emergency. It's crucial to get treatment as soon as possible, and often women may delay in seeking help.

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

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

It's common for women to delay seeking help when having a heart attack.

A heart attack means that blood flow to the heart is disrupted. The longer this goes on, the higher the risk of:

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

You may think the symptoms are not important, or that they're caused by something else. However, heart attacks do not just happen to men, so if you experience any symptoms it's important to seek help immediately.

If you have had a heart attack, you should be referred on to a cardiac rehabilitation programme when you leave hospital. This helps you by providing information, advice and support to:

  • understand your condition and medication
  • recover from your heart attack, procedure or surgery
  • make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of having another heart attack

Read further information about:

Risk factors of heart disease

There are various risk factors for heart disease, some of which you have control over and others that you don’t.

Uncontrollable risk factors for heart disease include:

Your risk can also be increased by certain lifestyle factors (sometimes called controllable risk factors). For example, your diet, level of physical activity and smoking habits.

You can make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of heart disease. There is support available to empower women to become active and improve their health including:

If you have been diagnosed with some other health conditions you might also be at increased risk of heart disease. These conditions include:

Pregnancy and heart disease

From the early stages of pregnancy there are lots of changes in your body, including to the heart. 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 extra demands on your heart around the time of birth. These demands can cause greater stress on your heart.

Pregnancy if you already 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.

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.

Further information about pregnancy with a heart condition

Developing a heart condition in pregnancy

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

Heart disease is a leading cause of death for pregnant women in the UK, and the risk is higher for black women.

Urgent advice: Phone 999 or go to A&E immediately if you are pregnant and:

You're pregnant and you:

  • have chest pain or discomfort that doesn't go away – it may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing.
  • have pain radiating down your left arm, or both arms, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach
  • feel sick, sweaty, lightheaded or short of breath
  • have severe sudden chest pain or chest pain that you feel through to your back (it may feel like tearing)
  • have pain that comes on at rest or comes on while exercising which eases at rest
  • are coughing up blood
  • are experiencing palpitations that last more than 10 minutes or palpitation that makes you feel dizzy or unwell

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 cause angina, heart attack and cardiac arrest.

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
  • light headedness

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

Further information

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

Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland have a Resources Hub to help you manage health conditions including heart disease.

 

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Source: Scottish Government

Last updated:
26 January 2023