According to the World Heart Federation, heart disease and stroke are the biggest killers of women globally â?? taking more lives than all cancers, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined!

â??Even though breast cancer is the most feared disease among women, in the USA, only about 3% die of breast cancer, while a massive 33% of women die from cardiovascular disease,â? says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA).

The scale of heart disease

Weight is a sensitive topic, but itâ??s one we canâ??t ignore because overweight and obese women have a higher risk of developing heart disease. And according to the South African Medical Research Council, 65% of South African women are overweight or obese!

Living in a manâ??s world

Heart disease is thought to be a â??manâ??s diseaseâ? when in fact, globally, heart disease kills far more women than men.

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â??Part of the problem is that symptoms of heart disease in women are often not diagnosed properly,â? says Dr Mungal-Singh.

Symptoms of heart problems in women

Women are also less aware of the dangers of heart disease â?? and are therefore not as alert to the warning signs and symptoms.

Typical symptoms of heart problems in women, like nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, pain in arms or neck, difficulty in breathing and unexplained fatigue and sweating are often dismissed or ignored.

â??Women need to become aware that heart disease is a very real danger and something they should act on, says Dr Mungal-Singh, â??Women in developing countries are also more at risk than those in the developed world. In South Africa, the proportion of cardiovascular disease-related deaths in women aged 35â??59 years is 150% higher than that of women in the USA.â?

Reducing your risk of heart disease

However, you can do something about reducing your risk. The first step is to find out the health of your heart.

â??Early detection through regular tests and knowing the warning signs are essential to help reduce the incidence of heart attack and stroke. Women should have their blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and body mass index (BMI) tested regularly in adulthood, even if they donâ??t think they are at risk,â? recommends Dr Mungal-Singh.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to 80% of deaths due to heart disease could be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as a following a healthy diet, taking part in regular physical activity, quitting smoking and reducing alcohol intake.

Keep your stress in check

Jessica Bacon, registered dietitian with the HSFSA, says that it is easy to reach for unhealthy â??comfortâ? foods when under stress.

â??High-fat and high-sugar foods are particularly bad for you heart. Although eating too much of these foods can make us feel better, coupled with not doing enough physical activity, overeating can lead to unwanted weight gain,â? warns Bacon.

â??Making a conscious choice to eat healthily will not only protect your heart, it can also boost your immune system and can help you feel more in control.â?

She provides a few tips to keep your health in check during stressful times:

  • Avoid having a stock of unhealthy treats at home, as this can increase the temptation to reach for these unhealthy choices

  • Make a time in your busy schedule to sit down and eat a well-balanced meal, and aim to have at least five fruits and vegetables each day

  • High fibre foods will help to keep you feeling satisfied during the day, so choose whole-wheat or high-fibre starchy foods, instead of refined starches

  • Watch out for drinks that are high in sugar or caffeine, and replace these with plenty of water

During Heart Awareness Month in September — thanks to a partnership between the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa and Clicks — all South Africans will be able to get free health screenings at Clicks Clinics stores. Click here to read more.

For more information about heart health and where you can get screened, call the Heart and Stroke Health Line on 0860 1 HEART (43278), visit or email