Bringing women’s heart health to the forefront

Dr. Tara Sedlak is working to improve equity in heart research. She shares tips for women on how to take control of their heart health.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, heart disease and stroke is the number one cause of premature death in Canadian women — and half of all women who experience heart attacks have their symptoms go unrecognized.

Dr. Tara Sedlak, a clinical associate professor of cardiology at UBC, a cardiologist at Vancouver General Hospital and medical director at the Leslie Diamond Women’s Heart Health Clinic, is working to change that. Frustrated after seeing women continually misdiagnosed, Dr. Sedlak has focused her research career on women’s heart health — aiming to increase recognition, improve diagnoses, and ultimately, save women’s lives.

We spoke with Dr. Sedlak about her latest research and what women should know about their heart health.

Why are there so many misconceptions about women’s heart health?

For a variety of reasons, including their family commitments, women have been underrepresented in clinical cardiology trials for many years, often only comprising between 10 to 25 per cent of the study subjects. This has led to a tremendous knowledge gap when it comes to women’s heart health.

Why are women’s heart ailments often misdiagnosed?

Firstly, women have been less involved in research and clinical trials. Secondly, the causes of heart disease can be different for women. For example, compared to men, women are more likely to have small vessel disease or spasm of blood vessels causing chest pains, but these entities are traditionally not as well-researched or understood as large vessel blockages, so they’re often missed.

Dr. Tara Sedlak (right) consults with a patient at the Leslie Diamond Women’s Heart Health Clinic.

Women’s heart attack symptoms often go unrecognized. How do women experience symptoms differently than men?

Women are more likely to describe their pain as squeezing or tightness as opposed to the traditional elephant-on-the-chest pain that men often express. Women are also more likely to experience jaw pain or arm pain without chest pain. And they can have more shortness of breath and light-headedness than men.

Are some risk factors unique to women?

Several unique risk factors relate to hormones and pregnancy history including premature delivery, high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, which can all double women’s risk of future cardiovascular disease. And polycystic ovarian syndrome and early menopause can also increase women’s future risk.


of women who have a heart attack have their symptoms go unrecognized


cause of premature death in women in Canada is heart disease and stroke


of all heart disease and stroke clinical research has historically focussed on men

What is your latest research showing?

In one recent study, we found that women with MINOCA (myocardial infarction with non-obstructive coronary arteries) or INOCA (ischemia with no obstructive coronary artery disease) have better outcomes when they’re treated at a health centre that specializes in women’s health.

Specifically, they have less chest pain, better quality of life, better control of cardiovascular risk factors, improved mental health and less emergency room visits and hospitalizations.

This really highlights the life-saving difference that women-focused health care can make, and the importance of shining a spotlight on women’s heart health through research.

What healthy heart tips do you have for women?

Women should concentrate on their heart health from a young age. It’s important to see your general practitioner for regular check-ups of cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels. It’s also important to have a healthy lifestyle including exercise up to five times a week and a heart-healthy diet, such as a Mediterranean-type diet. And women must pay attention to their mental health and stress levels and seek help early if these are not well-controlled.

Published: January 30, 2023