February is Heart Month in Canada and the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada is taking the opportunity to spread awareness about the impact of heart disease on Canadian women.

Women and men experience heart disease differently, which can lead to a higher rate of heart attacks, stroke and cardiac-related deaths among women.


Women may experience different symptoms than those we are traditionally taught to recognize.  They are more likely to experience chest discomfort (rather than a crushing pain), shortness of breath, fatigue, indigestion or nausea and back or neck pain. 

All of these symptoms could easily be dismissed as something less serious, and if we’re not taught to recognize them as potential signs of acute heart problems, women will continue to be at risk for minimizing discomfort and delaying medical intervention.

Diagnosis and treatment

Because women’s heart disease tends to appear in the smaller blood vessels of the heart (rather than the major coronary arteries as is common in men), it needs to be diagnosed and treated differently. 

Typically, heart disease is diagnosed with an angiogram, a test that X-rays coronary arteries and blood vessels. These tests are not effective at diagnosing the type of disease that appears in smaller blood vessels (microvascular disease). Stress tests, which measure the heart's ability to respond to external stress, are also less effective for women.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, women are less likely to attend cardiac rehabilitation programs after a heart attack, which increases their risk of having another heart attack down the road. This is due to a number of factors including lower rates of physician referrals and not having time because of work and family responsibilities.

The Foundation also notes that women are less likely to be prescribed blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering medication after a heart attack.

Risk factors

It is important to recognize the unique risk factors that impact women’s likelihood of experiencing heart disease.

Pregnancy, menopause and other hormonal changes can impact women’s hearts. Estrogen birth control can also increase the risk of heart disease in women who have other risk factors.

Women are also at a significantly higher risk of spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD)—90% of cases of SCAD are women and account for about 25% of all heart attacks in women.

How to reduce your risk of heart disease

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, up to 80% of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

To foster good heart health, do your best to:

  • Maintain a nutritious diet including lots of fruits, vegetables and whole foods and low in processed foods.
  • Spend at least 150 minutes per week engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Refrain from smoking.
  • Adopt habits and strategies to manage your stress.

For advice about mitigating your risk factors for heart disease, speak with your Lakeside pharmacist or family doctor.



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