The hearts of men and women work differently, new research shows
Posted June 18, 2019 18:18:35
Claudia Keech was overcome with pain in her arms that was so severe she couldn’t speak. She had no idea her heart was in serious trouble.
- Research shows there are differences between the male and female heart
- Women have greater blood flow to their heart muscle and greater space between their heart muscle cells
- Researchers believe the findings may explain differences in how heart disease presents in men and women
“It’s that female thing, we’re trying to cope when you really shouldn’t be,” she said.
“I’m a working mum and I just kept going ‘it’ll be okay’.”
Ms Keech didn’t know it, but she had a blocked artery. Cardiac imaging specialist Professor Martin Ugander knows her experience is not unique.
“Women present differently to men,” Professor Ugander said.
“The classic shooting out the left arm and intense pain is more typical for men but it is more common in women to have diffuse symptoms: maybe nausea, maybe dizziness, maybe shortness of breath.”
Male and female hearts function differently
The University of Sydney cardiac imaging specialist and his team have studied how male and female hearts function differently, and will present the findings at the Heart Foundation’s Women and Heart Disease Forum tomorrow.
They used advanced MRI imaging techniques to look at the hearts of 20 men and 20 women.
“Females have a little bit more space between their cells and they have a little more blood flow coming to their heart, both at rest, and when they’re exerting themselves,” Professor Ugander said.
“These differences in the function and structure of the normal female heart might also explain in part why they present differently.”
The researchers think these differences are because women’s hearts have more small blood vessels supplying the heart muscle than men.
“Just knowing men and women differ in the normal state is important if you’re going to try and have cut-off values for what is normal and what is not.
“This is something we should be thinking about in how we cater our treatments to men and women.”
Ms Keech’s episode happened four years ago when she was in her early 50s. The single mum was juggling a busy film and media career in Los Angeles.
“My body had given me a signal the night before and I had pains down my arms. I kind of thought it was odd, but it went away,” she said.
The following day she was on her way to have a facial when she was struck with pain in her arms again, so severe she couldn’t verbalise what was happening.
Ms Keech’s friend took her to a hospital nearby where she was diagnosed with a blocked artery and needed emergency surgery.
“My arms were in agony, worse than labour pains because there’s no relief. It was bang, I could not move,” she said.
The diagnosis was a shock to Ms Keech.
“I’m very active, I eat very well. It was just not something on my radar.”
It turned out Ms Keech had a genetic disorder that gave her raised cholesterol and contributed to the condition.
She’d had her cholesterol checked in the past and been given elevated readings, but her doctor never followed up.
“There was nothing to indicate from a medical professional at the time there was anything wrong from me,” she said.
Ms Keech is telling her story to encourage other women to be aware of the signs of a heart condition and to follow up with their doctors.
New figures released from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show heart disease is a leading cause of death among Australian women.
More than half a million Australian women had one or more heart, stroke and vascular diseases in 2017-18, and 22,000 women died of cardiovascular disease in 2016.
“As a parent you’re still thinking about your child while you’re going through this because you’re in hospital with tubes and you’ve got a young person there,” Ms Keech said.
“It’s really hard as a parent to know that you’ve put your child through that. Completely horrifying.
“If a woman’s having a mammogram and pap smear why aren’t they getting their cholesterol checked and their blood pressure checked?”
Heart Foundation women and heart disease manager Angela Hehir said their forum at the University of New South Wales was one way the foundation was trying to reduce heart disease in women.
“It’s an opportunity for us to bring together all the experts to talk about the unique characteristics of heart disease in women,” she said.
“What we’re understanding about heart disease in women is that it crosses a number of boundaries, it crosses women’s reproductive health and their life course with menopause and other conditions — it really impacts on their heart health.”
She said 22 women died each day of heart disease and it left others with lifelong illnesses.
While overall the new statistics showed rates of serious heart events were falling among women over the past decade, the rates of younger women being hospitalised with the illness were rising.
“Sometimes we think heart disease is mainly a male condition,” she said.
“Women need to be aware attacks are not always just chest pain they can be a range of other symptoms: pains in the jaw, the back, the arms, sweatiness and dizziness.”
“Go see your doctor for a heart health check and understand the warning signs of a heart attack.”
Recovery confronting but there is hope
After open-heart surgery, Ms Keech then faced the challenge of recovery.
“It’s quite confronting to be told that you have to use a walking frame when you’re this young. It’s very confronting to have to sit in something in the shower because you can’t stand,” she said.
Facts on cardiovascular disease among Australian women
- Over half a million Australian women have cardiovascular disease
- It accounts for almost one-third of deaths among women
- In 2016, 22,200 women died of cardiovascular disease
- Between 2001 and 2016, rates of cardiovascular disease fell by 57 per cent
- From 2006 to 2016, hospitalisation rates rose 11 per cent for women aged 25-34
- They rose 4.7 per cent for women aged 35-44
“It’s very confronting to have a physio going ‘come on you can do it’ because you can’t, you can’t walk three steps.
“You do get over it but I shouldn’t have had to go through it.”
Women can and do recover, but she said the mind has to be really focused.
“I’m now back to swimming 40 laps, I’m now back to working normally,” she said.
“I’m more aware now so that when I get a signal which a lot of mothers ignore, which is ‘gee I don’t feel well’ I listen now.
“If you’re not feeling well, listen to your body.”