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Sure, ignorance can sometimes be bliss (there are calories in wine?)—but not when it comes to heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australian women – and we’re three times as likely to die of heart disease than we are of breast cancer. 

While the stats are shocking, research shows that many women still don’t know exactly what heart disease is or what it looks like. Sure you might automatically think of an overweight, middle-aged man, gripping the left side of his chest, prednisone adderall side effects then falling to the floor, but women are more likely to suffer from back pain, jaw pain, or nausea before a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.

The good news in all of this? Heart disease—and even heart attacks—are preventable 80 percent of the time, often just by lifestyle changes. That means eating healthy, exercising regularly, and ditching cigarettes.

Another layer of protection is just knowing all you can about the disease in general. Here, cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Nikki Stamp, shares everything we should know about the number-one killer of women.

What actually is heart disease? 

Colloquially, when we say ‘heart disease’ we tend to refer to a heart attack which is where there is a blockage in the arteries supplying blood to the heart, causing damage to the heart muscle. In reality, there are many different types of heart disease in addition to this. Heart failure is a common condition where the heart doesn’t pump well enough to meet the demands of the body, we can have diseases that affect the heart valves and we can also see heart rhythm issues. All of these would come under that umbrella and can be serious threats to health and impair your quality of life.

What are some more subtle symptoms?

One of the most important things is that you know your own body and when something isn’t right, you should always get checked out. Signs of heart disease can be a little more subtle in women, so this rule of thumb holds even more true.

1. Pain of discomfort in the chest, arms, jaw or upper abdomen – women are more likely than men to have pain or discomfort in places other than the middle of the chest. Anything like this should prompt a visit to hospital.

2. Shortness of breath – if you’re finding you’re huffing and puffing especially when you’re doing things that were normally easy for you, you should see your doctor

3. Palpitations – palpitations are an awareness of your heart beating particularly fast or irregularly. There can be lots of causes of this – some related to your heart, some are not. If you have palpitations that don’t go away, head to the hospital. This is an area where wearable technology is getting exciting and where we’re starting to see new technology (such as the ECG app in the Fitbit Sense) evolving.

If you feel palpitations, you can use your watch to see if you have a common heart rhythm problem called atrial fibrillation. It’s important though that even if these things say everything’s fine, if you feel unwell, go to your doctor. 

4. Dizziness or fainting – if you’re feeling like you’re going to pass out or you actually do, best to ensure none of this is due to a medical condition like a heart problem.

5. Lethargy and tiredness – it’s a pretty common feeling for lots of women but if you’re struggling to do the things that you normally could, a visit to the doctor is important. While there can be lots of reasons for this, in conjunction with other signs of heart disease, that’s something we want to rule out.

As always, if you’re not quite right, be sure to get checked. Likewise, even though wearable tech is exciting, it can’t make a firm diagnosis for you so be sure to see your doctor if something isn’t quite right.

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