KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysians are unaware that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the main cause of death among Malaysian women for the past two decades.
It is 21/2 times higher than the proportion of deaths from all cancers combined, said Dr Jeyamalar Rajadurai, cardiologist, and chairman of the Women's Heart Health Organisation (WH20).
"Between 1990 and 2010, it accounted for about 25 per cent of all medically certified deaths. CVD, especially strokes, is an important cause of disability. About one in four women died from either a heart attack or stroke."
Established three years ago under the National Heart Association of Malaysia, WH2O aims to educate women about CVD risk and promote a healthy lifestyle in keeping with its slogan "Healthy Heart, Happy Woman".
"Many women are not aware that heart attacks and strokes affect them."
CVD is due to narrowing of the arteries supplying the heart and brain by atheromatous plaques. If the plaque build-up is small, it does not give rise to any symptoms.
As the heart artery becomes progressively narrowed, one develops chest pain (angina) on exertion for example, walking or doing heavy work. Sometimes the artery can become blocked rapidly within minutes or hours.
"This gives rise to a heart attack if it is an artery supplying the heart or a stroke if it is an artery supplying the brain.
There are several reasons why one develops these plaques, and these include both non-modifiable and modifiable risk factors, Dr Jeyamalar explained.
"With increasing age, both men and women develop these plaques. Women develop these atheromatous plaques about 10 years later than men, but since women have a longer life span than men, the CVD burden is higher among women."
She said while it is generally true that female sex hormones provide some protection to women against CVD, occasionally women might develop CVD before menopause.
"By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, exercising regularly and eating sensibly, Malaysians can prevent CVD."
Dr Jeyamalar said the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. However, women, diabetics and the elderly may not have chest pain and instead, experience a vague ache in the left side of the neck, shoulder or arm.
"Sometimes they may only have a feeling of indigestion, difficulty breathing or a faint. If the symptom is unusually severe or associated with difficulty breathing and/ or sweating, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
"Get someone to send you to the nearest hospital or call for an ambulance. Do not drive yourself. If the symptom, however mild, occurs only on exertion when walking fast or climbing up the stairs, and gets better once the activity is over, it may be angina," said Dr Jeyamalar.
If the symptom is sudden numbness or weakness affecting the arm and leg on the same side at the same time, then it could be a stroke. Again one must seek medical attention as quickly as possible so that the appropriate therapy can be given to stop the stroke from developing further.
"Time is of the essence when it comes to treating heart attacks or strokes, because the earlier the appropriate treatment is administered to the patient, the better the long-term results and survival."