Her Heart Matters – Women’s Cardiovascular Health

September is Heart Month and this year the Irish Heart Foundation is running a new campaign focusing on women’s cardiovascular health.

Women are five times more likely to die from heart disease and stroke than breast cancer yet new research has shown that the majority of people are not aware of this.

According to a survey carried out by Ipsos MRBI on behalf of the Irish Heart Foundation more than half or 59 percent of people surveyed were surprised that the risk of death from heart disease and stroke was so high for women compared to breast cancer. They stated that the five-time risk was “higher than they thought.”

This September the Irish Heart Foundation is running the ‘Her Heart Matters’ campaign with support of the HSE and Healthy Ireland, to increase awareness of the risk of heart disease and stroke in women and the fact that this risk increases as women enter menopause.

The Her Heart Matters Campaign will unapologetically focus on women’s hearts because research has shown that heart disease in women has been underresearched, under-diagnosed, and under-treated for far too long.

According to the Lancet women and cardiovascular disease commission published in May last year “despite being responsible for causing 35% of deaths in women each year, cardiovascular disease (CVD) in women remains understudied, under-recognised, under-diagnosed, and undertreated, with women underrepresented in clinical trials.”

A report launched earlier this year found that female patients in Ireland were waiting almost twice as long as men to be diagnosed with heart failure, with delays to diagnosis associated with poorer quality of life, mental health issues, and impact on relationships.

The report State of the Heart: Heart Failure in Ireland, by Roche Diagnostics and the Irish Heart Foundation, analysed data from a first-of-its-kind survey of heart failure patients in Ireland, conducted by Censuswide, which identified a significant gender disparity between the experiences of male and female patients, with female patients waiting longer to be diagnosed with heart failure than men.

On average, women have to wait five weeks to receive a formal diagnosis of heart failure, compared to men who have to wait three weeks. Women are also more likely to delay seeking help from health professionals after first developing symptoms, with females making appointments at four weeks – almost twice as long as males.

Furthermore, studies from the Polish Registry of Acute Coronary Syndromes (PL-ACS) presented at Acute Cardiovascular Care 2019 – a European Society of Cardiology (ESC) congress revealed that women call an ambulance for husbands, fathers, and brothers with heart attack symptoms but not for themselves. Further confirmation that women tend to play down their symptoms and are less likely to call an ambulance for themselves, putting the pain down to “indigestion.”

The Menopause and heart health

While the Irish Heart Foundation’s Her Heart Matters campaign aims to raise awareness of heart health among all women, part of the campaign will focus on menopause as this is a particular time in a woman’s life when their cardiovascular health is most at risk.

While a lot of people have heard about menopausal symptoms such as night sweats, hot flushes, vaginal dryness and low mood or anxiety, what is less well known is that the menopause also affects the heart and in particular puts women at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

While the menopause itself doesn’t cause cardiovascular disease, lowering hormone levels coupled with the ageing process, increase your chances of developing risk factors for heart disease and stroke such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

In general women experience menopause between 45 and 55 years of age however, the average age for women to enter the menopause is 51. Some women experience what is known as early or premature menopause before the age of 40

As we age and particularly around the time of menopause, the level of cholesterol in our blood increases, in particular the bad cholesterol or LDL, often triglycerides also increase and the good cholesterol or HDL decreases. This leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease – heart attack and stroke.

Lower oestrogen levels as a result of the menopause lead to a stiffening of the arteries of the heart which can increase blood pressure. Furthermore, as its easier to gain weight and harder to lose it as we age, and this can also lead to an increase in blood pressure- another risk factor for heart disease.

The chances of a heart attack increase in menopause as a result of lower oestrogen levels which adversely affect your cholesterol levels, arteries, and blood pressure all of which increasing the risk of a heart attack.

Her Heart Matters

The demands of a busy lifestyle mean that for many women, taking care of their own wellbeing can fall by the wayside. That’s why the Irish Heart Foundation aims to inform, empower, and support women in taking care of their heart health this September.

The Her Heart Matters campaign will support women by sharing information about lifestyle factors that contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease and how to address them. It will also include an online self-assessment tool of cardiovascular risk factors so that women can take stock of their heart health, and plan to develop more heart-healthy habits.

The Irish Heart Foundation wants to empower women to share information and stories with each other. To help with this a number of women have generously shared their experiences of stroke and heart disease which are available to read on irishheart.ie

The campaign also includes a selfcare and wellbeing journal that can be downloaded for free, which is full of information and activities that will support women in protecting their heart health every day.

The Irish Heart Foundation was keen to address the issues that concerned real women; therefore, the Her Heart Matters campaign was developed with collaboration and insight from polls, focus groups, and representative groups including Travellers, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, the trans communities, and academics.

Speaking about the importance of the Her Heart Matters campaign, Janis Morrissey, Director of Health Promotion, Information and Training at the Irish Heart Foundation said cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a leading cause of death in women.

“In Ireland, women are 5 times more likely to die from heart disease and stroke than breast cancer, yet only a third (34%) of women aware of this. Sadly, one in four women in Ireland die from heart disease and stroke.

So, it’s a big problem, but we don’t hear enough about it because cardiovascular disease in women is under-researched, underdiagnosed and under-treated. There is a false belief that CVD is a man’s disease, but there are important women-specific risk factors throughout women’s lives, like menopause.”

“We are encouraging women, particularly those in their 40s and 50s or those entering menopause, to take stock of their heart health in September by identifying what small changes they can make now to benefit their heart health into the future. The Irish Heart Foundation has a range of information and resources to support women on their heart health journey,” she said.

Ms Morrissey said that all women are different and unique, so what one woman needs most to protect her heart health was not necessarily what another woman needs.

“We have created a holistic selfreflection tool to support women to find out where what areas of their life they could benefit from extra support in – be that stress and mental wellbeing, physical activity, or healthy eating. Visit irishheart.ie and use the tool there or download our Self-care and wellbeing journal,” she explained.

Ms Morrissey also said that the Her Heart Matters campaign included a focus on the menopause as this was a time in a woman’s life when she is at high risk for heart disease and stroke.

“Some of the most important long-term effects of menopause often go unnoticed. The loss of oestrogen means less protection for heart and bone health. So, it’s important for women as they approach menopause to really take stock of their health.”

Research has shown that women from more socio-deprived backgrounds are more at risk from heart disease, and according to Ms Morrissey it is wrong to say that our risk of heart disease and stroke is our individual responsibility and solely under our own control.

“Many people from marginalised groups are at higher risk of heart disease because of the influence of the wider determinants of health – forces around them that they can’t control. These increase biological, behavioural, and psychosocial risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Women are known to be more affected by these factors than men.

To support these women, we need to make health promotion interventions available and accessible and responsive to their specific needs. The Irish Heart Foundation has a range of programmes targeted at underserved communities for example of Mobile Health Unit which offers free blood pressure checks,” she said.

Finally, Ms Morrissey said the good news was that 8% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through very simple changes to lifestyle changes.

“Most women know that makes a healthy lifestyle, but life can get in the way. 1 in 3 women feel they don’t get enough time to focus on their health every day. That’s very understandable when you consider how busy many women’s lives are as they juggle careers, family, caring for elderly parents maybe financial pressures. This is a time when so many women are busy looking after everyone else in their lives, that it’s hard to look after themselves.”

“We are on a mission to help women in Ireland, but we can’t do it alone. Let’s get talking about menopause and heart health – with your sisters, mothers, friends, and daughters. Let’s talk – share – empower,” she concluded.

On World Heart Day, the 29th of September, the Irish Heart Foundation will host a free webinar about women’s heart health with insights from health professionals including menopause specialist Dr Deirdre Lundy and a woman living with heart disease.

Throughout the month of September, the Irish Heart Foundation will also be encouraging donations to help support its valuable and lifesaving work.

For more information on the Irish Heart Foundation’s September campaign Her Heart Matters please see www.irishheart.ie for more information or to donate.

Written by Janis Morrissey- HPIT- Irish Heart Foundation

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