22/09/2015 1:07 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Ladies, Let's Get To The Heart Of The Matter

Scientific research is showing us that we have great cause for concern as to the heart health of women. Here's what we all need to know about women's heart disease.

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heart shape

Before you read any further, I want to ask you a question. What is the leading cause of death for Australian women?

If you answered breast cancer, close but not quite. Shockingly, the leading cause of death for Australian women is heart disease. Breast cancer doesn't even make the top five. Despite the fact that we're far more likely to die of heart disease, women in Australia are dangerously under-informed and ill-equipped to look after their hearts.

The scientific and clinical community haven't actually fared much better than the average Aussie woman. It's only in recent times that we have seen an interest in the female heart. Increasingly, scientific research is showing us that we have great cause for concern as to the heart health of women. Here's what we all need to know about women's heart disease.

Women have different symptoms from men

While a man may get the classical central chest pain that radiates down the left arm, women often don't. Women have symptoms such as strange burning in the chest or throat, tiredness, shortness of breath or change in what activity you can do. This is actually quite dangerous. Not only is a women more likely to ignore the non-classical symptoms, doctors and nurses may also deprioritise these funny niggles, leading to fewer tests and less treatment.

Women are much less likely to get the right tests or the right treatment

This is not some horrible form of gender discrimination. The way in which heart disease affects the heart of a woman is biologically different to a man's, in many cases. Therefore, they don't necessarily meet criteria that triggers us doctors (or patients) to order tests or take the necessary tablets. The tests that we use don't have the same accuracy in women as they do in men, because the disease is slightly different.

Most of us are at risk

The things that make us at risk for heart disease include smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and a few other things we can't treat. Like age, gender or genetics. Ninety percent of Australian women have one or more risk factors for heart disease. Half of the population has more than two! With obesity and diabetes running rampant in our modern times, this is only going to get worse. Young women are no different, with rates of diabetes, smoking and obesity rising in our young women, we all have something to be concerned about.

If a woman does get heart disease, she is in trouble

Sadly, women who have a heart attack may be more likely than men to die of the disease. They develop more heart failure, which can affect their ability to do day-to-day activities or care for their families.

How can we change things?

Ladies, it's time to get serious about your heart health. All of us should see a GP and get some advice on how to look after your heart. Check you blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar for diabetes. If you smoke, stop it. Right now. Get active and eat well, maintain a healthy body weight. Your local Heart Foundation has some wonderful resources, specifically for women on heart health.

Similarly for the medical and research professions, women's heart disease is slowly making it's way to the table. It's time to investigate aggressively why our mothers, sisters and daughters are doing badly when it comes to matters of the heart. We need to not only educate Aussie women, but also Aussie health care workers about how important women's heart disease is.

If we can be vigilant from both sides of the battle, women's hearts may beat on for many years to come.