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Calgarians speak out as new report finds women at heightened risk for heart disease


It was a triple-bypass, open-heart surgery that saved the life of Christina Stuwe in 2018, but the Calgary woman says her irregular heartbeat went undetected for years and she had a heart attack without even knowing it.

"We can't do what we want to do if we're not taking care of ourselves and that's why my advocacy is here, because the gender bias is real," she said.

"I had to deal with it. I had to fight through it."

A new report released Wednesday from the Heart and Stroke Foundation finds gender gaps in medical diagnosis and care, as well as research and awareness, which put women at heightened risk of heart and brain disease.

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of premature death in Canadian women, with 32,271 deaths alone in 2019 – one woman's life every 16 minutes.

Those figures account for 20 per cent more women than men who died of heart failure that year alone.

The report adds that women face different risk factors than men for heart disease due to biological differences, but health professionals have historically fallen short in considering those differences.

It goes on to say that, in general, women who have a heart attack are less likely than men to receive treatments and medications they need, and to get them in a timely way.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation also found two-thirds of clinical research for heart disease is focused on men and about half of women who experience a heart attack have their symptoms go unnoticed.

For Stuwe, it was a literal matter of life and death that nearly went unchecked.

In February 2014, she had a heart attack.

But she didn't know that until 2017.

"I was sitting watching cartoons with my son and relaxing and then all of a sudden my heart just started racing for no reason."

"I ended up going to the clinic, I had an echocardiogram done that presented something wrong with my heart, but there was no conclusive evidence."

It was only after Stuwe and her husband Sven pushed for further testing, including an angiogram, that multiple blocked arteries and the need for surgery were discovered.

"It was a shocker because first I was told I had one artery that was 100 per cent blocked, which meant I'd had a heart attack approximately when I was 44 years old, and I never knew that," she said.

I'm just encouraging women to look after yourselves because if we don't look after ourselves, we can't be the mother, the daughter, the wife or the sister."

Stuwe received open-heart surgery one year later and successfully recovered through cardiac rehab and regular exercising, which now allows her to stay active as an avid cyclist.

Later this month, she will release her book Yes it's my heart… is it yours too? to highlight her journey and continue to raise awareness for women and doctors who might not recognize the early symptoms of heart disease.


Cynthia Culhane has always viewed herself as someone who has taken care of her body with regular exercise and proper nutrition.

She was shocked to discover she had a serious heart condition.

It all happened after her massage therapist told her that he could feel her heart pulsing and beating throughout her entire body.

"I guess I kind of thought, this guy does this for a living and it's weird to him so maybe it's weird, but I didn't really think about it after that," she said.

Culhane would bring up the story to her doctor a few months later and was convinced to take an echocardiogram to rule out heart disease.

It was then she was asked a series of questions by doctors.

"They were asking me about when I would get too dizzy or how many times I fainted while teaching a yoga class … if I carried fluid in my leg, and I was like, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" she said.

"That's when I was told that I've got a pretty serious heart condition."

Culhane was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, which results in larger-than-normal pumps as the heart beats.

She now has a defibrillator implanted, which actually kicked in and saved her life during a yoga class.

Her heart condition is now regularly monitored and taken care of, but she warns other women to be aware of the differing symptoms in women.

"Women present differently than men. I think that we have this impression of this, you know, Hollywood cardiac arrest where we're clutching our chest and I think women don't know what to watch for," she said.

"And so I'm very focused on awareness and the different socioeconomics that play into it because access to care is a problem and it's something that I know the Heart and Stroke Foundation is focused on."


Dr. Kara Nerenberg, a clinician scientist at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine, has been working exclusively on preventing heart disease and stroke in younger women.

She says women typically have different symptoms of heart disease than men, including more fatigue, a lack of energy, jaw pain or pain in different places that often gets missed.

That includes factoring in menstrual cycles and pregnancy, which have often been ignored over the years when it comes to looking at symptoms for heart disease.

"We are missing prevention and certain stages in a woman's life like the pregnancy period are seeing some conditions like high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and pre-term birth, which show us the trajectory to developing premature cardiovascular disease," said Nerenberg.

"Similarly, around the time of menopause, women start to develop more high blood pressure, too, and it's really important that women have their blood pressure checked, have their cholesterol checked and if they're high."

Nerenberg adds that the province is working on solutions.

"Research at the University of Calgary showed that women who had a heart attack left hospital on fewer of the preventative medications or the standard therapies than men and so as clinicians, we definitely need to do better in making sure that women receive all the same treatments," she said. Top Stories

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