What Women Need to Know About Heart Disease

Heart Disease is one of the leading causes of death for women in Australia, but a growing body of evidence suggests that dietary and lifestyle interventions can significantly reduce the toll, writes Eliza Robinson, BA, BHSc.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of evidence surrounding key dietary and lifestyle interventions that can significantly reduce the likelihood of women developing cardiovascular disease.

In Australia, we are fortunate enough to have a comprehensive breast-screening program in which women aged 40 and over are encouraged to utilize the free mammogram service every two years.  Our health system also screens for cervical cancer every five years, checking for subtle tissue changes that may be an early warning sign of the presence of cancerous cells.

However, many women may not take the possibility of developing heart disease as seriously as they take the potential of developing breast or cervical cancer. Even though heart disease kills over two times the amount of women in Australia as breast cancer.

That statistic can be alarming to those of us who do not realise the prevalence and severity of cardiovascular disease in women. There are several factors at play, including the fact that women may be less likely to screen for cardiovascular disease then men.

Why women may be less likely to screen and receive early diagnosis for cardiovascular disease:

  • Women tend to develop symptoms at a more advanced stage of illness than men
  • Their symptoms are often vague or “less specific” than those in males
  • Some of the testing available produces less accurate results for women than it does for men
  • Women are less likely to seek professional help quickly
  • Some professionals can be less likely to check for cardiovascular disease in women than they are in men

Given that the symptoms in women may be more vague than those we see in men, what should women look out for when it comes to the possibility of developing cardiovascular disease?

Signs to look out for:

  • Swelling in the legs, feet, or ankles
  • Weight gain
  • Problems sleeping
  • Heart palpitations
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Indigestion
  • Heartburn
  • Anxiety
  • Fainting

How can we reduce the risk?

A study that followed a cohort of 84,129 women for 14 years from 1980-1994 found that adhering to certain dietary and lifestyle factors had a significant impact on their incidence of heart disease. The researchers found that these protective dietary and lifestyle factors were highly impactful, even in the presence of genetic predispositions to the development of heart disease.

These beneficial dietary and lifestyle factors were:

  • Not having ever smoked, or having at least quit smoking
  • Engaging in half an hour of vigorous physical activity daily – this could include brisk walking
  • Having a body mass index (BMI) under 25
  • A diet HIGH in folate, cereal fiber, marine omega-3 fatty acids, and low-glycemic index foods
  • A diet LOW in trans fats, saturated fats, and high-glycemic index foods
  • Interestingly – women who consumed around 5gm of alcohol per day (a standard glass of wine is 11gm) were found to be at lower risk of coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke, but at higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke

What is the simplest way to eat a heart-smart diet?

There are two diets with large bodies of evidence supporting their use in reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. These are the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (the DASH diet) and the Mediterranean Diet. The two dietary approaches are similar, with a few subtle differences, as outlined in the table below:

Dietary guideline


Mediterranean Diet

High in fresh vegetables and fruit
High in cereal fiber found in whole grains
Low in saturated fat
Low in trans fat
Low in refined sugar and other sweeteners
Focus on plant protein: legumes and nuts rather than animal proteins
Rich in low-fat dairy products
Rich in extra virgin olive oil
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines
Promotes low-moderate alcohol consumption ie 1-2 glasses of red wine per day with meals

While these diets contain some subtle differences in their recommendations, there is a great deal of overlap. Luckily, since both diets are supported by large bodies of evidence, following either diet is going to confer a beneficial impact in terms of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Did you know?

In premenopausal women, the rates of cardiovascular disease are significantly lower than those in age-matched men, however after menopause, the rates of CVD in women rise. This is in large part due to the protective role of oestrogen in preventing the development of cardiovascular disease. Oestrogen and its receptors exert this beneficial effect via a number of mechanisms, including keeping the mitochondria in homeostasis, improving calcium signaling between cells, reducing reactive oxygen species, and improving cardiac remodeling in diseased hearts.

This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health, seek immediate medical attention.