There is a common miss-perception that women are less likely to die from a heart attack than men. When I was a kid I remember people saying that women express their feelings more freely and have less pent-up emotion, so their hearts are healthier. I’m pretty sure this is a wild stereotype and medically inaccurate, but it is something that was passed around as truth and received with knowing nods at many a braai I attended.
Turns out cardiovascular disease claims the lives of about 110 women in South Africa everyday and should by no means be considered a man’s disease. According to a recent press statement issued on behalf of the SA Rooibos Council, current rates suggest that more women are dying of heart disease than men and that they’re unlikely to survive their first attack.
Dr Suzette Fourie, a prominent SA cardiologist, offers a plausible explanation. The problem could be two-fold. Either doctors are misdiagnosing women or women are misinterpreting heart attack signs.
“A heart attack often presents itself differently in women. Typical symptoms such as tightness, discomfort or chest pain may not be present, instead there could be a wide range of sensations, which could include an uneasy feeling in the chest, abdominal pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck or jaw, a fluttering heartbeat, shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, cold sweats or even swollen feet.
“As these symptoms could be related to any number of illnesses, women tend to dismiss the fact that they may be sick and often delay going to the hospital, which increases their risk of dying as a result of a heart attack.
“Heart disease in men is more often due to blockages in their coronary arteries – known as coronary artery disease (CAD), while women more frequently develop heart disease within the smaller arteries that branch out from the coronary arteries, which is referred to as microvascular disease (MVD).
Apart from getting regular exercise and following a healthy diet, it is also recommended that you drink plenty of rooibos tea – which is good news for us since it’s cheap as chips in South Africa. A study by Prof Jeanine Marnewick showed that drinking six cups of Rooibos a day, over a six-week period, significantly reduced the blood cholesterol levels in those that participated.
The main heart-health promoting element in Rooibos tea is Chrysoeriol – an antioxidant that helps to prevent and treat vascular disease by inhibiting the migration of smooth muscle cells inside the aorta – a key cause of the narrowing or hardening of the arteries that may lead to a heart attack. Chrysoeriol is also an effective bronchodilator, and helps to lower blood pressure and relieve spasms.
Dr Fourie says it’s time that women change their perceptions around heart disease. “We need to put the fact that we are vulnerable to heart disease on our radar screens and recognise the signs at the earliest stage. Making women more aware of the risks, the symptoms and how to take better care of our hearts should be a priority for every woman.
“You are never too young or too old to take care of your heart. Making smart choices now will pay off for the rest of your life,” concludes Fourie.