Until some time back, it was thought that men are more vulnerable to heart attacks than women. But now, we have increasing evidence to say that women are equally vulnerable to heart problems. The only difference is, that women in the child-bearing age, that is, up to the age of 45, are largely protected by their hormones. But after the age of 45, women are as susceptible to coronary artery disease as men. This alarming trend could be the outcome of drastic lifestyle changes in the post-globalisation era and other reasons.
Generally, the risk of heart disease in women increases with age. After cancer, heart disease is currently the second leading cause of death in women over 40 years of age, especially after menopause. Also, at older ages, women who have heart attacks are more likely than men to die from coronary heart disease.
Menopause increases risk
Menopause is a natural phenomenon in a woman’s life that occurs between the age of 45 and 55 years. Menopause brings along with it several attendant changes, especially in the way a woman experiences life. As menopause nears, the ovaries gradually produce less oestrogen, causing changes in the menstrual cycle and other physical changes. In some instances, women experience loss of oestrogen at an early age if the ovaries are removed during a total hysterectomy, and in some cases due to early menopause. In any case, the loss of natural oestrogen following menopause is seen as the major cause of heart disease in women. However, other factors that may also play a role in postmenopausal risks include:
- Changes in the walls of the blood vessels, making it more likely for plaque and blood clots to form.
- Changes in the level of fats in the blood –increase of bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease of good cholesterol (HDL).
- Increased fibrinogen levels related to heart disease and stroke. Fibrinogen is a substance in the blood, which helps the blood to clot.Increased fibrinogen may cause blood clots, which narrow the arteries and reduce blood flow to the heart.
The lifestyle of a typical Indian woman is undergoing dramatic changes in the new millennium. The rising instances of obesity, changing food habits, smoking and drinking, coping with stressful careers, are all factors contributing to the increased risk of heart disease in women. Due to their physiology, women are less tolerant to alcohol and smoke- and we know that these are two prime causes of increased heart attacks.
- Avoid or quit smoking.
- Maintain an ideal body weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Consume foods low in saturated fats and high in fibre – whole grains, legumes such as beans and peas, fruits, vegetables, fish and folate-rich foods.
- Diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are also major risk factors for heart disease. By controlling these conditions, women can reduce the risk of heart disease.
Hormone replacement is harmful
Logically speaking, if the loss of oestrogen is a major contributing cause for heart disease in women, hormone replacement should avoid
the risk to a considerable extent. However, hormone replacement therapy to make up the oestrogen lost during menopause is not
recommended, even in severe cases. Some recent studies have found that women with conditions of heart disease have not benefited
from Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). In fact, it has been found that HRT could actually be harmful in some cases. Risk of heart disease can be controlled to a major extent by effecting lifestyle modifications, and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.