Denman Masthead

Heart disease not just an old man problem

HerCanberra Team

As the Heart Foundation’s Go Red for Women month comes to a close, Meegan Fitzharris MLA, shares her story about heart disease in the hope other women take more notice of their heart health.

I always thought heart disease was something that happened to old men. Like my dad (sorry dad), who was diagnosed with hypertension when I was a kid. But looking back now, he wasn’t really old at all; he was only 38.

Probably like a lot of people, I didn’t really think a lot about my dad’s diagnosis. I certainly didn’t think it could mean I might be at a higher risk of heart disease.

But a routine visit to the doctor a couple of years ago revealed that I too had high blood pressure. I still had high pressure the next day, and the day after that. A few more tests revealed that I, like my dad, had hypertension.

At the age of 40, I was alarmed to be told I had high blood pressure. I was even more shocked to learn that I would probably need to take medication every day for the rest of my life. It’s sobering to know that a blood pressure machine is now a regular fixture in your bathroom cupboard.

According to the Heart Foundation, having hypertension, or high blood pressure, simply means your blood is pumping at a higher pressure than normal through your blood vessels. The problem is that it can actually be a major risk factor that leads to heart attack, stroke, heart failure or kidney disease.

It can also be dangerous because often high blood pressure does not show any warning signs. For me, I felt perfectly well. I don’t smoke, have a healthy BMI, and with three small children consider myself to be fairly active.

The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is by getting it checked by your health professional. And being told I had high blood pressure really was a wake-up call for me. It has made me take stock of my diet and exercise and not just for the sake of my appearance, but my long-term health as well.

It also shocked me to find out that heart disease is the single biggest killer of women in Australia.

The Heart Foundation says almost half of all deaths from heart attack in Australia in 2013 were women. Heart disease claims the life of 24 women every day in Australia, which means one woman dies because of heart disease every hour. And our risk only increases after menopause.

It’s not just an old man problem after all.

In fact my view of heart disease as a ‘male problem’ is one of the reasons women are less likely to seek help if they experience any of the warning signs of a heart attack. It’s time this perception changed.

This month is the Heart Foundation’s Go Red for Women month, which aims to raise awareness and funds for women’s heart health. The Heart Foundation is the only organisation in Australia that runs a comprehensive women and heart disease program that includes broad community engagement, education, advocacy to improve the way health services deliver heart care to patients, and investment in cardiovascular health research to improve health outcomes.

So what can we do? It’s important for women to know the lifestyle and clinical risk factors for heart disease. Lifestyle risk factors such as smoking, poor nutrition, physical activity and being overweight all add up. And clinical factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol further increase our risks. Risk factors also include a family history of heart disease or heart attacks. In Australia, 90 per cent of women have one risk factor, and 50 per cent of us have two or three risk factors. The more risk factors, the greater the risk of heart disease.

I’m still taking daily medication for my high blood pressure, and probably will for the rest of my life. But I don’t take my health for granted and am working hard to improve my lifestyle and mitigate those risk factors.

I hope more women will consider their heart health this month because it’s not just old men who need their hearts – it’s us women too.

As written by Meegan Fitzharris, Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly.

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