Heart disease affects both sexes, but often goes undetected in women. While more men than women are admitted to hospital for heart attack, the numbers of deaths from heart attack in men and in women are roughly the same.
What is heart disease?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) — often called 'heart disease' — is an umbrella term that includes diseases and conditions which affect the heart and blood vessels.
CHD is a common cause of heart attack, which occurs when blood supply to the heart is suddenly interrupted.The heart needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood and if this is stopped, the heart muscles can get damaged and begin to die.
Why heart disease goes undiagnosed in women
Australian women are more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. This is partly because heart disease is often not recognised in women. The reasons for this include:
- Women often develop symptoms of heart disease at a much later stage in the illness than men.
- Symptoms can be more vague or non-specific.
- Women are less likely to seek help quickly.
- Some diagnostic tests for heart disease are less accurate in women than in men.
- Some health professionals may be less likely to check for heart disease in women.
There is also less awareness of the risk of heart disease in females. Many Australian women (and men) mistakenly assume that heart disease mostly affects middle-aged men, which is not the case.
How men and women experience heart attack
Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance if you suspect that you or someone else is having a heart attack. If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile phone, try 112.
Women and men can experience the signs and symptoms of a heart attack differently.
Men may experience:
Women may experience:
- back, neck or jaw pain or tightness
- a burning sensation in the chest (similar to heartburn)
- chest discomfort
- shortness of breath
While chest pain is thought to be the most common symptom of heart attack — and it is common in men — only about half of all women who have a heart attack actually report chest pain.
Preventing heart disease in women and men
Women often focus on looking after partners, children or ageing parents, but it's important for women also to prioritise their own health.
In Australia, 9 in every 10 women have one risk factor for heart disease, and half of all women have 2 or 3 risk factors. The risk factors for heart disease in both in women and men include high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Are you at risk?
Whether you're a woman or a man, you will reduce your risk of developing heart disease if you:
- know the risk factors for heart disease
- talk to your doctor about a 'cardiovascular screening' based on your family history and risk factors
- quit smoking
- exercise regularly
- find ways to reduce stress
- stick to a healthy diet low in saturated fat and sugar and high in fibre
For more information
- Talk to your doctor.
- If you're not feeling well and you're not sure what to do, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a nurse, 24 hours a day (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
- Visit the Heart Foundation for information on the heart, heart disease and heart attack symptoms.
- The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute has factsheets on heart health, diabetes, nutrition and more.
- Jean Hailes for Women's Health provides information on all women's health matters.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: August 2019