Women warned that heart disease is biggest killer

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The Independent Online

Medical Correspondent

Five times as many women are killed by heart disease than by breast cancer in England and Wales, yet more than 70 per cent of women remain unaware that the condition is the single largest risk to their well-being.

New data shows that coronary heart disease (CHD) is the main cause of premature death in British women with 1 in 14 dying from it before the age of 75. Overall, it accounts for 1 in 4 female deaths, propelling the UK to the top of the European mortality rankings for CHD for women aged 35-74.

The British Heart Foundation, which today launches a new campaign focusing on "Britain's No. 1 Ladykiller", warned that the greatest barrier to prevention and treatment of CHD was women's own perception of heart disease as a "male preserve".

Each year, there are more than 76,000 deaths among women - greater than for any type of cancer. In addition, thousands suffer non-fatal heart attacks which can leave them chronically disabled.

Although death rates from coronary heart disease have decreased since the1970s, they are now falling faster in men than women. For men aged 35-74 the death rate has fallen by 24 per cent since 1980, and for women by 19 per cent.

Dr Ian Baird, medical spokesman for the BHF, said: "The number of women aged over 65 is set to double in the next decade. It is of vital importance that we raise awareness now."

Research by the BHF shows that many women do not recognise the symptoms of heart disease and do not seek help at an early stage of the illness. Dr Baird said that one of the preliminary symptoms, angina - chest pain on exertion or excitement- was often ignored.

"Women come forward for investigation at a more advanced stage of the disease than men," he added.

Dr Baird said that much of the initial research into heart disease had been carried out on men, and this had left the impression that they were at far greater risk than to women.

Prior to the menopause women have a lower risk of heart disease than men because the female hormone oestrogen has a protective effect on the blood vessels supplying the heart. Smoking and high-fat diets can reduce this protection, and after the menopause men and women run similar risks.

A survey of 800 women carried out by the BHF revealed widespread confusion about a healthy diet and in particular, cholesterol, with more than half of women unaware that saturated fats are the key type of fat to cut down on if they wanted to reduce their risk of CHD.

tA Women and Heart Disease information pack. Telephone the BHF on 0990 200656, or sendtwo first class stamps to: BHF, 14 Fitzhardinge Street, London W1H 4DH.