Broken hearts are killing increasing numbers of Kiwi women.
Long thought of as a men's affliction, cardiovascular disease remains New Zealand's leading cause of death, and it took more than 5000 women in 2009, National Heart Foundation figures show.
Cardiovascular and coronary heart diseases affect men and women differently, but more than 20 women suffered the exclusively female affliction "broken heart disease" after the Canterbury earthquakes, foundation medical director Professor Norman Sharpe said.
The condition, medical name takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can kill otherwise healthy middle-aged or elderly women, and is triggered by stress from sudden events such as the death of a loved one or a financial crisis.
The Detroit Medical Centre Cardiovascular Institute's Dr Cindy Grines, a women's heart health expert, addressed the Australia and New Zealand Cardiology Society last week about the need for more research into heart disease in women.
While middle-aged and elderly men were prone to heart attacks triggered by cholesterol build-up, heart disease was harder to detect in women, and it remains 10 times more likely to kill women in their 20s than men the same age.
Healthy women in their 20s were vulnerable to arterial tearing, a rare condition understood to be genetic, but doctors were still unsure of its cause, Grines said. "There's a genetic predisposition for tearing of major arteries, but there's much less known about smaller arteries. We're trying to collect information and we're doing blood tests to see if it's genetic."
Older women were also more likely to present with severe problems such as heart attacks or strokes, and even die from cardiovascular and coronary heart disease because they failed to recognise the symptoms.
That was largely because the symptoms were atypical – heavy and tired arms, dizziness, shortness of breath and nausea, Grines said.
Women were also more protective of themselves and cautious of medical intervention, with many refusing to take part in research, to take medication or undergo surgery.
American studies found only about half of women with heart attack-related symptoms even called emergency services, and on New Zealand's West Coast recently, a diabetic woman on dialysis drove two hours to get to hospital after a suspected attack, while a man flew in by helicopter the same day, Sharpe said.
Grines said it was also frustrating that doctors misdiagnosed women, putting their symptoms down to anxiety or stress.
The Detroit centre had introduced a system where any women over 45 presenting with symptoms were tested for heart problems. "We want to make sure we're not missing anything," Grines said.
"Doctors need to have a higher level of suspicion when diagnosing patients.."
The foundation is running a campaign to raise awareness of heart disease in women, at www.heartfoundation.org.nz.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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