Heart shock sparks health alarm for women

Women with heart disease are suffering poorer outcomes than men, with misdiagnosis and stigma about the condition sometimes delaying them getting help.

As a working mother of an active toddler, Jessica had attributed her breathlessness and chest pain to anxiety or stress and was shocked to discover she had heart disease.

"It felt like a really heavy diagnosis," the mental health worker told AAP.

The condition is often associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices, even though that wasn't the case for Jessica because it runs in her family and was likely exacerbated by her pregnancy.

"Maybe embarrassment or guilt or shame that you're not handling something well enough can get in the way of saying actually I really need help with this," she added.

Heart disease was the leading cause of death of Australia in 2020 and affects one in nine people over 75.

However, the deaths of several high profile people in their fifties including Shane Warne, Lisa Marie Presley and Senator Kimberley Kitching show heart issues can impact younger people.

Heart attacks symptoms can present differently in men and women.

Cardiologist Dr Monique Watt said the condition was traditionally considered a 'man's disease' but research showed women with heart disease were "doing quite poorly."

"Their outcomes after a heart attack are much worse, they're more likely to have another heart attack, more likely to die, more likely to have heart failure," Dr Watt said.

People with no traditional risk factors like smoking or high cholesterol are about 50 per cent more likely to die in the month after their heart attack and the risk was three times higher for women than men, according to research from the University of Sydney published in the Lancet in 2021.

Dr Watts believes the key to improving those figures is early intervention.

She said women were more likely to be misdiagnosed when they presented with heart attack symptoms and there were social, biological and medical reasons behind that.

"Even once heart disease is suspected, there are delays to women being investigated and delays to getting treatment."

There's a push to add a heart health check to the list of regular appointments including mammograms and pap smears, particularly around menopause and pregnancy.

Heart Research Australia is pushing to break down stigma regarding the condition in women, encouraging people to wear red in February to spark conversations about cardiovascular health.

"Most medical research particularly into heart disease has been done in studies on men, so that means that things that are impacting women specifically haven't been picked up," spokeswoman Jenny Bartrop said.