Matters of the Heart

Part 1: The Risk Factors

The heart has long been used as a symbol to refer to matters of the spiritual, emotional, and moral. Aristotle considered the heart the seat of thought, reason or emotion, and often rejected the value of the brain. Traditional Chinese Medicine also describes the heart as a central hub of the human body. Ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was the seat of the spirit. Many of these beliefs live on with us today through such idioms in the English language as “at heart”, “by heart”, or “free heart”.

Fast forward to the present, and we see full circle that modern science may be rediscovering that the heart is indeed largely responsible for the way we think and feel. Most of us have been taught that the heart is constantly responding to “orders” sent by the brain in the form of neural signals. However, it is not as commonly known that the heart actually sends far more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart! Moreover, these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving. In other words, not only does the heart respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart.

When it comes to heart health, many still believe that risk factors for heart disease are higher for men. But just because most women don’t experience the crushing chest pain that is a classic symptom of a heart attack in men (some just feel extremely tired or short of breath), doesn’t mean women don’t have just as many heart attacks as men do. In fact, it may shock you to learn that ample new research says women under 50 years of age are twice as likely to die from heart disease than they are from breast cancer – it’s the third leading cause of death for women ages 25-44, the second-leading cause of death in women ages 45-64, and the chief killer of women over 65.

Certain underlying health conditions are more likely to cause heart disease in one gender or the other. For women, major risk factors include metabolic syndrome (pre diabetes) and menopause. Women who smoke are twice as likely to have a heart attack as male smokers. For men, elevated cholesterol presents a higher risk (at least compared to pre-menopausal women). And a further risk for men may be genetic. Fathers with a common genetic variant – related to the immune system and inflammation – are at higher risk of heart disease and will pass the danger on to their sons. A study found men with a particular version of the male Y chromosome, were 50 per cent more likely to suffer from coronary artery disease (CAD), which can lead to angina, heart attacks and heart failure. Sleep deprivation creates greater heart disease risk but equally in both men and women.


When it comes to gender differences in heart disease, grab a pen and try answering the following True or False questions.


1. Risk factors for heart disease are different in women than in men.    


There’s nothing like starting off with a trick question.  This can be true and false. Certain risk factors are the same for men and women, but some risk factors, if present, affect women more than men. For example, hypertension, smoking and diabetes increase the risk for heart disease in women compared with men who have the same risk factors. But some risk factors are unique to women. These include pregnancy-induced preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure) and gestational diabetes. Stress may also be more likely to damage women’s hearts.


2. Sex increases the risk of heart attack.   


This one is false (thank goodness!). It is commonly thought that sex is a major trigger for heart attacks, yet only 1% of heart attacks are brought on by sexual activity. The biggest risk factor for a heart attack during sex appears related to low physical activity.


3. Coffee is bad for your heart.  


While too much caffeine can raise blood pressure, coffee actually contains a significant amount of antioxidants. This answer is false. A recent review of 21 studies found that women who drank one to four cups daily actually had a lower risk of heart disease.


4. Nuts are one of the best heart-healthy snacks.   


Nuts are a good source of soluble fiber, omega-3 fats, antioxidants (especially in the skin) and other nutrients. Research has found that consuming a handful of nuts daily can actually lower cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. And while nuts are higher in calories,  having a moderate amount does not contribute to weight gain.


5. Olive Oil is the best oil to cook with to help protect your heart.   


You may have guessed true.  And, where olive oil can certainly be healthy – especially in moderation and fresh atop your salad – you’re even better off to cook with palm fruit oil because it’s more heat resistant than olive. Palm fruit oil is also very high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats and it is a rich source of various antioxidants including Vitamin E tocotrienols. Studies have shown that palm fruit oil can actually raise good/HDL cholesterol while having a neutral or beneficial effect on LDL.


6. Women should be treated less aggressively after a heart attack than men.   


I’m sure you guessed the correct answer to this one. False. Absolutely not. However, the unfortunate reality is that women are treated less aggressively after a heart attack and are also more likely than men to die after suffering a heart attack. The reality is women have smaller and lighter coronary arteries than men do. This makes angiography, angioplasty, and coronary bypass surgery more difficult to do, thereby reducing a woman’s chance of receiving a proper diagnosis as well as having a good outcome.


7. Hormone replacement therapy protects against heart disease.   


Menopausal women who participate in estrogen replacement therapy actually may be at increased risk for heart disease. False.



Dr. Bryce Wylde is one of Canada's leading experts on natural medicine. He is the author of The Antioxidant Prescription and host of Wylde On Health on CP24.

Categories: Natural Remedies