Heart Disease in Women: What You Need to Know. Interview with Prof. Francesco Versaci
According to official data, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of mortality among women in Italy. A fact that underlines the importance of understanding the risk factors and the differences compared to men. To explore this topic, we asked Professor Francesco Versaci, an expert cardiologist, to guide us through the challenges and precautions needed to prevent these diseases and recognise them in time.
We start by talking about the differences between heart disease in women and men. In terms of incidence, symptoms and long-term effects, what are the main differences we should know?
Heart disease can affect both men and women, but there are some important differences to keep in mind. First, it should be noted that, nowadays, heart disease is the leading cause of mortality among women. Compared to men, women may present different and less dramatic symptoms in the event of a heart attack. For example, while chest pain is common in both sexes, women may report symptoms such as nausea, jaw, arm or back pain, severe fatigue, shortness of breath and sweating. These symptoms may be less noticeable than in men and are often underestimated.
What are the main risk factors for heart disease specific to women?
The main women-specific risk factors include hormones. Women produce more oestrogen, which can increase HDL (the 'good') cholesterol and reduce LDL (the 'bad') cholesterol. During the menopause, oestrogen levels decrease, increasing the risk of hypertension and high LDL-cholesterol levels. In addition, pregnancy can have an impact on women's heart health. If a woman develops conditions such as gestational hypertension or pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, the risk of cardiovascular disease may increase. Stress is another risk factor, as it can increase inflammation in the body, influencing the accumulation of plaque in the arteries.
In addition to women-specific risk factors, what risk factors affect both men and women?
There are shared risk factors between men and women. Family history is important; if a close relative has had heart disease, the risk is higher. High blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, an unhealthy diet, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are risk factors that can affect both sexes. Smoking, for example, is bad for the heart and increases the risk of stroke and heart attack, with women smokers being at risk of having a heart attack earlier than non-smokers.
How can women recognise the warning signs of heart disease in a timely manner?
It is crucial for women to be aware of the potential symptoms of heart disease. As I mentioned, the symptoms of a heart attack in women may differ from those in men and may include intermittent chest pain, nausea, jaw, arm or back pain, intense tiredness, shortness of breath and sweating. In the event of any suspicious symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.
What are some tips for preventing heart disease in women?
Prevention is crucial. Reducing stress with relaxing activities, regular exercise and good rest is important. In addition, a balanced diet that favours healthy, unprocessed, whole-grain foods and seasonal fruit and vegetables can help maintain a healthy heart. Regardless of your risk factors, it is always advisable to have regular cardiac screenings to monitor your heart health.
Finally, it is also very important to pay special attention to 'risk factors', especially if there is a family history of cardiovascular disease: that is, if in the family, parents or siblings have had an event (e.g. myocardial infarction at a young age). The genetic component is indeed very important and should be an 'alarm bell' for the whole family.
Whatever the risk factors, it is always a good idea to undergo regular screening to check your heart function.