Shortlisted Resolution: Stop women dying prematurely from coronary heart disease (CHD)!

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is twice as deadly for women in the UK than breast cancer. To avoid premature deaths caused by a lack of awareness of the symptoms and misdiagnosis, the NFWI calls on WI members to improve understanding among the public and healthcare professionals of the symptoms of a heart attack and its prevalence in society, particularly among women, and to campaign to tackle inequalities in treatment.  

Proposer’s position 

The proposer is concerned about the prevalence of coronary heart disease in women. She would like to see the WI raise awareness of the symptoms to help prevent premature deaths. 

The scale of the problem 

Coronary heart disease is sometimes called ischaemic heart disease or coronary artery disease, and is when blood supply to the heart is blocked or interrupted by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries. It is the main cause of heart attacks, which can be life threatening.

According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), there are around 830,000 women and 1.5 million men living with CHD in the UK. Although women are twice as likely to die of CHD as breast cancer in the UK, the charity says that it’s often not seen as something experienced by women. 

The Heart Research Institute UK and The American Heart Association both note that women do not always get the same “classic” heart attack symptoms, such as crushing chest pain, meaning that potentially deadly symptoms go undetected for longer. 

However, heart attack symptoms vary from person to person and the BHF says it’s a common misconception that women experience different symptoms to men on the whole.  Research published in the Journal of American Heart Association in 2019 from researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that chest pain is the most common symptom experienced by both sexes.   

The BHF argues that the belief CHD is a man’s disease has serious consequences as it means women are not necessarily aware of their risk, or recognise they are having a heart attack. This can lead to women delaying seeking help which increases the chances of permanent damage to the heart.  

There are also complex inequalities in treatment and care. According to the BHF, a woman is 50% more likely than a man to receive the wrong initial diagnosis for a heart attack. This increases your risk of death within 30 days by 70%, compared to someone who receives the correct diagnosis straight away. 

The current situation

The BHF is campaigning to the challenge the misconception that CHD is a man’s disease, and to encourage women to improve their understanding of the symptoms. These are: 

  • chest pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away. It may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing;
  • the pain may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to your neck, jaw, back or stomach;
  • you may also feel sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath. 

According to David Newby (BHF John Wheatley Professor of Cardiology at the BHF Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Edinburgh), women are less likely to seek medical attention and treatment. This may be because they are underestimating their personal risk of a heart attack, taking care of caring responsibilities before coming to hospital or because they have a higher pain threshold. 

According to ONS data, this has only worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic as deaths at home have increased, particularly in relation to CHD, suggesting that people are less likely to seek help at the moment when needed.

Particularly after the menopause when the risk of developing CHD increases, it is important to identify and manage risk factors for heart disease. These include: smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, not exercising regularly, diabetes and being overweight. 

Organisations such as the BHF and the NHS provide advice and guidance on how to reduce your risk of developing CHD by making simply lifestyle changes.  

How could the WI work on this issue if it was passed?

A full campaign would be developed by the NFWI if the resolution is passed, taking into account developments since then. To help inform your discussions, here are some ways the WI could consider working on this issue.

At local and regional levels, WI members could host awareness events in their local communities to improve awareness and understanding of the symptoms of coronary heart disease. Members could also link up with local branches of health charities to help support their awareness drives.

Nationally, the NFWI could work with expert organisations to support existing efforts in this area. This could include work to highlight the prevalence of coronary heart disease among women, campaign actions to tackle inequalities to treatment and initiatives to address the myths surrounding the issues. 

The NFWI could also provide members with ideas on how to engage local healthcare professionals, with a view to improving awareness of the symptoms of a heart attack. 

Points to consider:

  • A campaign on this issue would align well with the WI’s charitable objects to advance health for the public benefit and to advance the education of women and girls. 
  • WI members are well connected in their communities and would be well-placed to raise awareness of this issue amongst their networks. 
  • There are existing campaigns to increase awareness of coronary heart disease among women, and to tackle common myths. How could WIs work alongside these expert organisations to help reach more women and healthcare professionals? 
Further information British Heart Foundation: Video contentBritish Heart Foundation, What is a heart attack: British Heart Foundation, What is a cardiac arrest?:  


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