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Heart disease is the number one killer of women – so why is no one talking about it?

A woman in Canada dies every 20 minutes from heart disease.

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Pop quiz: What’s the leading cause of premature death (that is, dying before one reaches their expected lifespan) for women in Canada?

If you’re surprised to learn that the answer is heart disease, you’re not alone. Thanks to what is arguably the most successful public-awareness campaign in medical history, breast cancer may be at the forefront of most minds when discussing women’s health. This, despite the fact that heart disease kills five times as many women in Canada.

The statistics surrounding women and heart disease – released last week by the Heart & Stroke Foundation as part of a national awareness campaign called #TimeToSeeRed – are powerful and shocking. Did you know that a woman in Canada dies every 20 minutes from heart disease? Or that women who have a heart attack are more likely than men to either die or suffer a second heart attack? My career is devoted to improving people’s health, and I had no idea about any of this.

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And therein lies the problem. Twenty-five thousand women die from heart disease every year, yet the medical establishment – and the general public – still view it as a men’s health issue. Another grim stat: Two-thirds of heart-disease research focuses on men.

Some may wonder why this gender gap in research is a problem. After all, a heart is a heart, right? Yes and no. For starters, a woman’s heart is smaller than a man’s, as are the coronary arteries that supply it with blood. There are differences in how atherosclerotic plaque collects in women’s blood vessels, leading to heart disease. And of course, there are those biological functions – pregnancy and menopause to name only two – unique to women that can affect heart health.

“We just don’t know enough about women’s hearts,” Heart & Stroke CEO Yves Savoie said. “We’re decades behind in our knowledge compared to men. When it comes to heart disease, women are underresearched, underdiagnosed, undersupported and underaware of the risks.”

With the launch of #TimeToSeeRed, Savoie is confident that these systemic inequities will be addressed. In the meantime, there are plenty of easy-to-adopt preventative measures that will keep the hearts of both women and men healthy and strong long into old age.

Go easy on the vices

It should go without saying that cigarettes aren’t good for, well, anything. Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in Canada; smokers are three times more likely to die from heart disease than non-smokers. If you smoke, stop.

Heavy drinking is also a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Women should consume no more than two drinks a day (up to 10 per week), while men should cap their consumption at 3 a day (up to 15 per week).

Eat more plants, fewer animals

Being a vegan, I’ll admit to some personal bias on this one, but the link between eating meat and heart disease is strong. In April, the International Journal of Epidemiology published a research paper in which the five-year eating habits of more than 80,000 men and women were studied. The results? Those whose receive their protein from plant-based sources – specifically nuts and seeds – were 40-per-cent less likely to suffer from heart disease than their carnivorous counterparts.

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Get active

Exercise is the miracle remedy for just about all of life’s ailments. By now, everyone is probably sick of hearing about the many benefits of regular physical activity and exercise, but until we’re all living happy and health lives well into our 90s, I’ll keep on trumpeting the news. How you get your sweat on doesn’t matter; what matters is that you move your body as often as possible, several times a day.

“A 10-minute walk three times a day can have a huge impact for someone who’s otherwise largely sedentary,” Savoie said.

Muscleheads can rejoice – there’s evidence that lifting weights provides its own unique set of benefits on the cardiovascular system, separate from that of aerobic exercise. Resistance training leads to a greater flow of blood away from the heart, contributing to a prolonged drop in blood pressure after exercising has stopped.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. Follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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