Heart disease is the biggest killer in the UAE, but a new study has found that only one in five Emirati women is aware of the risk factors while most think they know everything about it.
The nationwide Zayed University study found that Emirati women are unable to recognise symptoms of cardiovascular diseases and only one in 10 thinks they are at risk of the disease. In reality, heart disease is the leading cause of death among both women and men in the UAE.
In Abu Dhabi, cardiovascular disease accounted for 35 per cent (1,105) of all deaths in the emirate in 2015, and in Dubai it was responsible for 30 per cent of deaths. This is in line with the global average of 31 per cent of deaths, which makes it the number one cause of death globally.
The ZU study revealed that 6.1 per cent of women believe they could take aspirin if they thought they were having a heart attack. In the event of a suspected heart attack, the majority of women said they would go to a hospital themselves, many would call a family member for assistance, but 30 per cent did not know how to call for an ambulance.
The study surveyed 676 Emirati women aged between 18 and 55, of whom most were from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Despite it being the biggest killer, the perception of risk of heart disease is low, with breast cancer, obesity and lung cancer featuring more prominently in Emirati women’s thoughts.
Dr Sarah Khan is the primary investigator-author of the study, titled Exploratory Study into Awareness of Heart Disease and Healthcare Seeking Behaviour among Emirati Women.
"The general consensus is that heart attacks happen to men. In the media, we always see men clutching their hearts and falling down when they get a heart attack,” she said.
“It was surprising to see how low awareness levels were but it was even more surprising to see that people felt they knew everything about heart disease. Because they don’t think they’re at risk, they don’t feel the need to learn about it.
“Women knew a lot about breast cancer as that has been talked about so much. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the same with cardiovascular disease, but I think things are improving now.”
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Emirati women in the study did not recognise many symptoms of a heart attack. While they identified shortness of breath or chest pain, most of them failed to diagnose the less publicised symptoms, such as pain in the jaw or stomach, pain in the elbow, back pain, anxiety and vomiting.
When it came to the risk factors of heart disease, most women pinpointed obesity, family history, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but few knew about age, diabetes, smoking and the menopause as risk factors for heart disease.
"The first challenge is that Emirati women are not aware of the symptoms. Unless someone collapsed and fell to the ground, they probably would not recognise the symptoms of a heart attack,” said Dr Khan.
“Second, women feel the need to delay things until it gets ‘serious’. They usually seek help with friends or family. Family are the first point of contact for most women, so they need to be made aware.”
The study showed that younger women wanted to access information electronically, but older women wanted brochures, magazines or people to talk to them, so, with older women being more at risk, there was a need to ensure that awareness programmes reach out to communities, Dr Khan said.
Dr Wael Al Mahmeed, a consultant cardiologist in Abu Dhabi and president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Cardiology, said that women often delay seeking treatment.
"When a man has chest pain he goes directly to the doctor. Women are often busy caring for their husband and kids and busy at work, so going to the doctor is not a priority," he said.
Delay in diagnosis comes from the women, and also from the physicians who do not pick up the signs. A 2012 UAE study showed that the mortality rate for women following heart ailments was 4.6 per cent compared to 1.2 per cent for men, said Dr Al Mahmeed.
“The challenge in the UAE is that healthcare is fragmented. Having a national strategy with a national budget and a five to 10-year plan is what we lack at present.”
Part of the myth that heart disease is a men’s condition stems from the fact that coronary disease affects more men than women. This is because women are generally protected from it until the menopause, but after the menopause they are at risk.
Dr Walid Shaker, consultant and cardiothoracic surgeon and head of department at Burjeel Hospital, called for an awareness campaign targeting women.
"They think heart disease isn’t a danger to them. Women have to start early and care for their heart health," said Dr Shaker.
"Many women are affected by shisha smoking and this is a very high risk factor.
"The breast cancer awareness campaign is so successful and every woman knows the mammogram must be done. We need a strong awareness campaign to do the same for heart disease."