Women need to be aware of risks of heart attack, cardiologist says

Dr. Olga Toleva, a cardiologist at St. Boniface Hospital, says women have to aware that they can be susceptible to heart problems, too.

Heart disease often seen as men's problem, leading to lack of research: Dr. Olga Toleva

Even young women could be at risk for heart disease, doctors warn. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For decades, heart attacks and other heart conditions were viewed as men's problems, and not something women had to worry about.

But Dr. Olga Toleva, a cardiologist at St. Boniface Hospital, says women have to be aware that they can be susceptible to heart problems, too.

Toleva is one of the organizers of "Wear Red Canada — Manitoba" event on Wednesday, which is aimed at educating women on heart health.

In the past, heart conditions were primarily studied in men, resulting in less research on women's heart health, she said.

It was also believed that women only developed atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque inside the arteries, later in life than men.

Now, research has shown not only that women are as likely as men to develop atherosclerosis in their postmenopausal years, but also they're at higher risk of developing other coronary syndromes, Toleva said.

"Often it was misinterpreted that if you're a woman you are basically safe and you don't have the risk of having heart attack compared to men — but in recent years we know that that is not true," she said.

"So women need to be aware that they are also at risk of having heart attack and need to be aware of how to recognize the symptoms and the symptoms can present itself differently, right, from women to men."

Symptoms differ for women 

The symptoms for a heart attack can be different in women, too, Toleva said.

While men usually present more dramatic symptoms like chest pain, women usually have more subtle symptoms of nausea, indigestion, lightheadedness, and a pain between the shoulder blades, Toleva said.

There are also certain conditions that are more specific to women that don't usually show up in men, she said.

For example, pregnancy-associated cardiomyopathy (diseases of the heart muscle) and spontaneous coronary artery dissection (a tear inside the heart) are more common in young women.

"So all of these entities are still being understudied and we want to do more research and raise awareness amongst women that they exist," she said.

Toleva said it's important for young women and pregnant women to be aware of these conditions, and if they have serious symptoms similar to heart attack, to ask for help and go to the hospital as soon as possible.

Toleva will be delivering a free lecture on women's heart health Feb. 13 from noon to 1 p.m. in the Samuel N. Cohen Auditorium at the St. Boniface Hospital.