Health

Monday 22 September 2014

My 'flu' was heart disease!

More women than men in Europe die from heart disease, but many still don't recognise the symptoms. The warning signs are very different to those for men, as these women discovered...

A woman's heart: Cath Haywood survived a heart attack after thinking she was just under the weather

When we think of heart disease, we tend to think of stressed-out men dealing with an ever-increasing waistline.

But it will come as a wake-up call to many Irish women that heart disease and strokes kill more women here every year than all women's cancers combined.

Across Europe, 55pc of women now die from heart disease compared with 43pc of men. Yet most women barely give their heart health a second thought in the great scheme of things.

Cath Haywood (49) didn't consider herself to be at risk of heart disease. She also didn't realise that she was having a heart attack.

"My arm ached and I felt a bit under the weather, not 100pc," she recalls. She put the discomfort down to an over-zealous ball-throwing session with her springer spaniel.

"I was snapping at everybody and I was generally miserable. I just wasn't feeling right."

Her husband had to persuade her to seek medical attention.

"It didn't even cross my mind that I might be having a heart attack," she says. "You see actors on television where they have this terrible, crushing pain and collapse in a heap on the floor. Well, that didn't happen at all."

Louise Flanagan was only 38 when she suffered a mild heart attack last year.

"I was at work, charging back up three flights of stairs after having had a cigarette," she says. "When I got to the top of the stairs, I couldn't catch my breath. I felt dizzy and weak and started to feel worse. I had a headache and it felt like flu symptoms. I didn't have any severe chest pains."

Louise, who is from Dublin, was brought to see her GP, who initially also thought she had flu symptoms.

However, when the doctor took Louise's pulse, it showed an alarming skip in the normal heart rate. She carried out an ECG test and told Louise she'd had a heart attack.

"An ambulance was called straight away and my doctor told me to stay calm. I think I went to the other extreme and asked could I go home because I had no pain."

When Eithne Malone, from Wexford, started to feel unwell back in 1990, she also didn't think it was anything to do with her heart.

"When I exercised, I had a pain in my back rather than chest pain," she says. "When I laid down, I heard what sounded like water going down the plughole in the bath."

What Eithne, now 57, had heard was her heart struggling to pump blood through its chambers. She was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition where there is a thickening of the heart muscle.

"I wasn't overweight and led a very active life," she says. "But looking back on it, I used to get out of breath quite easily after playing badminton or even playing hockey back in my school days. I just assumed everyone else felt the same way, but I now know that I was the odd one out."

While awareness of heart disease has increased amongst men, it seems that women are not as tuned into their heart health.

"I think there probably is a considerable lack of awareness on the part of women," says Dr Brian Maurer, consultant cardiologist and medical director of the Irish Heart Foundation.

"Women still have the view that it's a men's disease. I think there are a number of reasons for that -- coronary heart disease occurs mainly to older women, and there is a traditional perception that heart attacks happen to stressed, overworked males.

"But, of course, women are dealing with stress in their lives too, and another problem is that quite a high number of women smoke."

A report from the Women's Health Council earlier this year said that cardiovascular disease is neither diagnosed as readily nor treated as effectively in women.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for women who find themselves dealing with a heart condition or disease.

Eithne Malone underwent surgery on her heart muscle in order to reduce the blockage of blood. Two years later, she was fitted with a pacemaker to help regulate an electrical disturbance within the heart.

"As soon as I had surgery, those symptoms were relieved," she says. "It made such a difference. The condition can't be cured but it can be treated."

It's thought that Eithne's cardiomyopathy is caused by genetic factors. She was also told that her father's sister died suddenly at the age of 17.

"It sounds to me like it could have been a similar condition. They wouldn't have known what caused it back then, but she had been cycling and then suddenly dropped dead."

When Eithne was diagnosed, she was advised to change her lifestyle and cut back on stress.

"It wasn't on the cards to go back into teaching," she says. "Most people would say 'weren't you very unlucky that it happened to you?', but I'd say I was lucky that it was picked up and that I'm now being monitored. There's no reason why I can't lead a normal lifestyle, as long as I take care of myself."

Mum-of-two Louise Flanagan is now well on the road to recovery after suffering her mild heart attack. She had angioplasty surgery and two stents were placed in one of her arteries.

"I was told there is something in my family history that put me in the high-risk category of having a heart attack -- there's nothing in my immediate family history, but there must be something further back," she says.

"The cardiologist said that even if I'd had a fantastic diet, didn't smoke and had a good fitness regime, I would still probably have had a heart attack. But my lifestyle brought it on a bit earlier than it would have happened."

Louise is now on medication, watches her cholesterol intake and walks a lot with her husband, Colm.

She gave up smoking straight after the heart attack and hasn't looked back.

"I was amazed that the cravings didn't hit me that hard. I think I had such a fright by what happened that it gave me the push I needed to give up."

Cath Haywood has also been fitted with a heart stent and is taking medication.

"I was told that women don't have the same symptoms as men, but I never knew that," she says. "If I had known a little earlier, maybe I could have prevented the heart attack happening. But you don't think, do you?"

Contact the Irish Heart Foundation on 1890 432 787 or visit www.irishheart.ie

Women and heart disease: the facts

Cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of death in Ireland for both men and women. Between 2001 and 2005, an average of 2,485 women died each year from ischaemic heart disease, which is characterised by reduced blood flow to the heart.

The onset of heart disease in women is, on average, 10 years later than in male counterparts. The risk of heart disease for women increases after menopause.

Women don't always experience the classic chest or arm pain associated with heart attacks in men. They should also look out for pain in the upper back, shoulder, neck and stomach.

Fatigue, nausea, indigestion, shortness of breath and weakness can also be symptoms before and during a heart attack.

Good tips for healthy hearts include taking regular exercise, giving up smoking, monitoring blood pressure and eating a balanced, healthy diet.

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