While many of us assume that heart disease mainly strikes men, the fact is 12,000 Australian women die each year from illnesses like stroke, heart attack and heart failure - that's four and a half times the number of lives claimed by breast cancer.
Now an innovative program has been developed by nursing researchers to help women recover from cardiac events. Through a mix of education, exercise and counselling, women are able to reduce their heart disease risk factors and set off on the road to longer, healthier and more active lives.
The group rehabilitation program for women with heart disease (GROW) is a collaboration between the University of Western Sydney, Sydney West Area Health Service and the Heart Foundation, and is being officially launched today at Westmead Hospital as part of Heart Week activities.
This program has been funded by NSW Health as part of its Women's Health Program.
Chief researcher, Associate Professor Patricia Davidson from the University of Western Sydney, says it's time to shatter the myth that only men develop heart disease, and better educate women about the risks.
"Death from heart disease remains a major concern for all Australians. We've lulled ourselves into a false sense of security that it's predominately a male disease, when in fact heart disease is the number one killer of women in Australia, claiming the lives of 33 women every day compared to 38 men," she says.
"It's unfortunate that we don't know more about how to specifically manage women with heart disease as most of the research, interventions and diagnostic procedures are geared towards men.
"What we do know is that women don't always exhibit the classic heart attack symptoms, and many delay seeking help, even though they have a diagnosis of heart disease. Also, women aren't as readily encouraged into cardiac rehabilitation programs after they're discharged from hospital, which has led to women having a low participation rate in such programs compared to men - around 20 per cent."
Associate Professor Davidson says women in areas such as western Sydney are particularly at risk.
"There are areas of western Sydney that have higher standardised rates of mortality from heart disease than the rest of New South Wales. In areas of socio-economic disadvantage you uncover more risk factors such as increased incidence of smoking, high blood pressure, obesity and depression," she says.
She says the GROW project has been trialled with women admitted to Blacktown and Mt Druitt Hospitals and achieved remarkable results in a short space of time.
"Cardiac rehabilitation programs have been proven to make a huge difference to the survival rates of patients following an acute cardiac event. Cardiac rehabilitation is about keeping patients out of hospital and getting them back to living an active and fulfilling life," says Associate Professor Davidson.
"Women put their own health needs way behind the needs of their partner, children, work and other commitments. I've heard reports of women driving themselves to hospital having suffered chest pains because they didn't want to make a fuss or put anyone out.
"The six-week GROW program was specifically designed for women as a way to empower them and change their lifestyle for the better. Exercise therapy helped speed up the healing process, and education programs taught them about diet modification, relaxation and the need to develop a regular and suitable exercise regime.
"There was also emphasis on psychological health, helping the women reduce their anxiety and depression after such a life-threatening event. They discussed things like social support, stress, relaxation, coping strategies, prioritising health, and watching out for warning signs and how to seek treatment.
"All the women found the program immensely beneficial. Not only did they improve their physical activity and lose weight, the program also helped them unload their fears, frustrations, problems with work, family and strategies for changing their behaviour. Talking about the psychological and social issues surrounding heart disease is a simple idea, but it's often forgotten about when women are being treated in hospitals."
Associate Professor Davidson hopes the success of the GROW program will encourage other health services and professionals to look at similar programs for female cardiac patients. Already, the team is looking to expand the program into other western Sydney suburbs.
"The tens of thousands of deaths from heart disease in Australia are preventable, and we can make a difference to our mortality rates through these sorts of intervention and rehabilitation programs."