Wednesday 1 October 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 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.

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