Women have overtaken men in dying from heart disease, and the situation is forecast to get worse.
Heart disease now kills more women than any other condition, with spiralling obesity and diabetes levels likely to push the rate higher still.
Ministry of Health figures show 5038 women died of cardiovascular disease in 2009, compared with 4712 men, and are projected to increase as the effects of diabetes and obesity worsen.
In the past, New Zealand's heart-disease strategies have tended to focus on men. "In the 1960s, we reached the peak of related deaths, particularly in men," Heart Foundation medical director Professor Norman Sharpe said. "So more emphasis was placed on them."
While health professionals had got on top of the historical causes - high cholesterol and blood pressure - obesity now posed the biggest threat.
Cardiovascular disease encompasses stroke, blood vessel and heart disease, with the most common cause of death where the heart's blood vessels were restricted.
About 48 women in every 100,000 die a year, more than double the breast cancer rate of 19 per 100,000, and 40 times that of the 1.4 per 100,000 for cervical cancer.
"Women have missed out in terms of awareness and checks.
"When they show up with symptoms, they tend to get less intensive care," Sharpe said.
One reason was that heart disease was harder to detect in women because many symptoms were atypical - heavy and tired arms, dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea and discomfort. "Women tend to dismiss their pain as something more minor, like indigestion," Sharpe said.
But it might also be partly the fault of the system, he said, because many female heart-disease deaths were preventable, but doctors sometimes misdiagnosed women's symptoms as anxiety or stress.
Studies in the United States show about half of women with heart-attack symptoms phone emergency services.
Earlier this year a diabetic woman drove two hours on the West Coast to get to hospital after a suspected heart attack, while a man in a similar area was flown by helicopter.
The foundation has long advocated systematic preventative screening for men and women, similar to the breast, cervical and prostate cancer campaigns.
A recent breakthrough has seen heart disease and diabetes mandated as primary-healthcare targets for screening in men over 45 and women over 55, with a focus on higher risk Maori and Pasifika patients, and it still looking for more areas of research into women's health.
"We get it now, but we've been a bit slow about it," Sharpe said.
"We need all the help we can get."
A Go Red for Women fundraising breakfast series around the country this month will raise awareness for women's heart health.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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