Heart disease experts are trying to shine light on a deadly health issue that claims the lives of far more Canadian women than breast cancer, yet often goes ignored.

Sharonne N. Hayes

"Healthier women means healthier families and communities," says Dr. Sharonne Hayes. (Mayo Clinic)

They're gathered in Ottawa for the 2016 Canadian Women's Heart Health Summit, a two-day event hosted by the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

"Heart disease is the number one killer of women. When we talk about women's health, we should be talking about heart disease," said Dr. Sharonne Hayes.

Hayes is the summit's keynote speaker and a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She founded the Women's Heart Clinic there in 1998 and has spent decades studying the issue.

"What we have is a lack of knowledge, a lack of research and a lack of important things that can help our patients because we haven't been studying and paying attention," Hayes said.

Not 'a man's issue'

Hayes said while more awareness has been raised about how heart disease impacts women, there's still the perception that it's a man's issue. 

"That stereotypical Hollywood heartache — clutching the chest, falling over — it's always a guy in the prime of life. They never show a woman."

'If women paid half the amount of attention to their cardiovascular health as they pay to their breast health we'd have a huge increase in cardiovascular health.'
- Dr. Sharonne Hayes

Hayes said women and physicians tend to focus on cancer and so-called "bikini medicine," which centres on breast and reproductive well-being.

"[Women will] get their annual mammogram but they won't get their cholesterol checked or report symptoms. In the U.S. about 40,000 women die each year of breast cancer. Half a million women die of cardiovascular disease. If women paid half the amount of attention to their cardiovascular health as they pay to their breast health we'd have a huge increase in cardiovascular health."

Recognizing the signs of heart disease

Hope Sarfi said she had no idea about cardiovascular disease until she suffered a heart attack two years ago. The Ottawa native had to undergo double bypass surgery and spend six months recovering.

Thais Coutinho

Dr. Thais Coutinho says the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Summit is about raising awareness and improving the health of women in Canada. (CBC)

Sarfi said it's important for women to recognize the signs before something happens.

"Be aware of your body and if you don't feel right, get your doctor to get things checked out."

Dr. Thais Coutinho is a cardiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. She said more needs to be done to prevent heart disease in women. 

"It's about time that Canada does something to conquer this."

Coutinho, who helped co-chair the summit, said cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death of women in North America and Europe. She said one out of every three women in the developed world will die as a result of it.

"Hopefully with efforts like the summit ... we'll be able to decrease even further the cardiovascular burden."