Heart attacks are the No. 1 killer globally of both men and women and can occur at any age. But heart disease can impact women in unique ways that are still not fully understood.
This Feb. 13, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute is joining partners around the country for Wear Red Canada, a national campaign to raise awareness about women’s heart health.
Women’s heart health can be impacted by several factors related to being female. For example, the age of menstruation and menopause, the method of birth control, hypertension disorders during pregnancy and the number of births can all impact their risk of developing heart disease.
There are even some heart conditions, such as spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), that disproportionally impact women. SCAD is caused by a sudden tear in the arteries that surround the heart, which can result in a loss of blood flow to the heart muscle.
The condition is estimated to cause 10 to 25 per cent of heart attacks in women younger than 50 years. Ninety per cent of all SCAD heart attacks occur in women, most commonly in their 40s and 50s.
What a SCAD heart attack can look like
Calgary teacher Heidi Okada knows a lot about the condition. She had a SCAD heart attack at age 36.
Like many women, Okada’s heart attack symptoms were different from the "classic" signs she had heard about. Because of this, she put aside the feelings of extreme fatigue and chest heaviness she felt the day of her heart attack and went to work as usual.
It wasn’t until a co-worker, worried about Okada’s worsening feelings of illness, drove her to an urgent care facility, that she learned there was something wrong with her heart.
The young mom of two was sent to Foothills Medical Centre by ambulance where she learned she had had a SCAD heart attack. She spent five days in the cardiovascular intensive care unit and faced months of cardiac rehabilitation.
Making changes post-attack
Seven years later, Okada has made several lifestyle changes, such as reducing stress and exercising consistently. Her efforts have paid off.
“I am doing really well,” she says, noting she now looks back on her heart attack as critical to her life’s path.
“By surviving SCAD, I was given the opportunity to rebuild my life. I know God has a purpose for me, even if that is just being a good friend and neighbour or showing my daughter how important it is to take care of yourself.
“SCAD has made me the person I am today. It hasn’t defined me, but it sure has pivoted my life.”
Advocating for women's health
Okada is also an advocate for women’s heart health. She founded the SCAD Calgary support group and frequently shares her story in hopes that others can learn from her experiences.
“I am very open about what happened to me,” she says. “If I can positively impact even one person, it’s worth it.”
Dr. Sandra Dumanski, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine, is also passionate about raising awareness about women’s cardiovascular health.
Wear red Feb. 13 to raise awareness
A women’s heart health researcher who focuses on how a woman’s reproductive health influences her cardiovascular risk, Dumanski is the local lead for Wear Red Canada.
She is also a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute’s Women’s Health Initiative, which is working toward providing optimal outcomes for women of all ages.
Dumanski and her team have organized a local campaign, Libin Wears Red, to put women’s cardiovascular health at the forefront.
“Cardiovascular disease takes the life of a Canadian woman every 20 minutes,” says Dumanski. “Yet many may not realize they are at risk. During this campaign, our goal is to spread two important messages: First, women have a significant risk of heart disease, but second, and most importantly, they can reduce this risk by 80 per cent through healthy lifestyle choices.”
Dumanski encourages everyone to get involved in the national movement by wearing red on Feb. 13 to raise awareness about women’s heart health; getting active with the Wear Red Activity Challenge; and joining Libin on social media to learn more about the different ways that women experience heart attacks.
“Cardiovascular disease takes our mothers, daughters, friends and colleagues,” says Dumanski. “But everyone can make a difference.
“Please get involved with this amazing campaign and learn more about women’s heart health. It’s really important for every Canadian to be proactive in taking control over their heart health.”
Find more information on how to get involved with the Libin Wears Red campaign, and take advantage of the numerous contests, activities and educational opportunities available through the initiative.