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Heart Health 101: what men and women should know

Heart disease remains the number one killer of both men and women worldwide, edging out cancer for the past few years.

Here’s the good news: there are some things we can do to help prevent heart disease and, if heart disease or attack is recognized and treated early, there are some great outcomes for patients.

I spoke with Dr. Mina Madan, cardiologist at Sunnybrook, to answer some FAQs about the heart and how we can keep ours healthy.

Q. A real easy one, to get us started: What is the heart? (Because it’s been awhile since we’ve sat in a Science Class)

The heart is a muscle pump in the left part of the chest that pumps blood carrying oxygen to the rest of the body. It has its own blood supply that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the heart.

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Q. What is coronary artery disease?

The heart’s blood supply is kind of like a plumbing system. Coronary artery disease is build up in those pipes. When there’s a blockage – made up of cholesterol plaque – oxygen and nutrients can’t get to the heart, and so it starts starving. The build-up can happen over time or abruptly.

After about 30-40 minutes of a complete (100%) blockage, you may start to feel some or all of the classic symptoms of a heart attack.

Q. What are the symptoms of a heart attack – or what doctors would call a myocardial infarction?

The classic symptoms are: central heaviness in the chest, burning in the chest that radiates up the neck and into the jaw, pain in the back, difficulty breathing, sweating, pain in your left arm, nausea or vomiting. If you experience these symptoms, call 911.

Q. What are some of the not-so-typical symptoms?

There are other atypical symptoms that both men and women may have. Those might be just jaw pain, just back pain, or burning in the stomach area (kind of like acid reflux). This explains why sometimes the diagnosis of heart attack can be missed.

Q. I’ve heard women experience heart attack differently than men and many don’t realize they are having a heart attack at all?

It’s true. Many women have other atypical symptoms or report just feeling breathless, or really fatigued in the days leading up to a heart attack; some women experience the so-called classic symptoms, but less intense. These symptoms could be a sign of trouble in your heart. You should talk to your doctor.

It’s not really known why these differences exist – just differences in how men and women are wired.

Heart attacks are more common in men. Post-menopausal women have heart attacks more often than pre-menopausal women due to the reduced levels of estrogen associated with menopause (estrogen has a protective effect on the heart).

Q. What are heart disease risk factors?

It’s important that people know the risk factors. Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and a family history of heart disease are all risk factors. As you approach middle age it’s important you are aware of your family history. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors and take measures to keep your heart healthy.

Q. What can we all do to stay on the heart-healthy track?

If you smoke, consider quitting.

Get your blood pressure checked – you can actually do it yourself at most pharmacies.

Have an annual appointment with your family doctor.

Maintain a healthy body weight through a healthy diet and by staying active. You should exercise three to five times per week. Obesity itself is not a risk factor – but being overweight often goes hand in hand with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

If you have risk factors, feel out of breath more than usual or have any of the other lead-up symptoms mentioned above, talk to your doctor about taking a stress test. If heart disease is diagnosed, there are treatments and the outcomes are usually very good.


This column was also published in 2017 the Town Crier Group of Newspapers in Toronto, Ont. It has been reviewed and updated for 2021.



About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.