Jessica Lambourn was sixteen years old, when she was diagnosed with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy.
A genetic heart condition known as HOCM, Jess was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator a year later to try to manage the condition. Then, in the middle of studying for her year 12 exams, the device malfunctioned, sending Jess flying across the room.
“I was ironing my jeans, getting ready for my last day of a tech course I was doing for year 12, and it blew me across the room. It was like I’d been holding an electric fence. I blacked out for a while and I didn’t know what was going on.”
For practically-minded Jess, the malfunction was just another thing she had to adapt to since being diagnosed with HOCM. Now aged 29, the condition has become an inseparable part of her and her family’s life since losing her father to the disease when she was seven, and having her sister also diagnosed with HOCM.
Regular doctor’s visits, clinical trials, daily medication and a bedside heart monitor are the normal for Jess. One time she hit her shoulder on a car door and had to be fitted with a new defibrillator— at $25,000 for installation alone, it was a costly mistake and fortunately covered by Medicare.
Jess’s story is not an uncommon one. Heart disease is the single biggest killer of women in Australia — in fact, three times as many women die from heart disease than breast cancer.
For some women like Jess, heart disease is genetic. But for others, lifestyle factors, including being overweight, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, are major contributors to heart attacks.
“Many people think that heart disease is an old man’s disease, but the fact is heart disease doesn’t discriminate; it affects all ages, and women are just as likely to die of a heart attack as men,” says Dr Robert Grenfell, National Director of Cardiovascular Health from the Heart Foundation.
“Overall, heart disease killed 9,780 women in 2011,” confirms Dr Grenfell. By way of comparison, in 2011, 2,914 women died from ‘malignant neoplasm of breast’ - or, breast cancer.
The most recent statistics we have access to from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that women are more likely to die from ‘heart failure’ than men - in 2011, 1,752 women died from a heart failure, compared with 1,184 men.
According to Dr Grenfell, high blood pressure is a risk factor of cardiovascular disease because “it can overload the heart and blood vessels and speed up the artery-clogging process, known as atherosclerosis. This can lead to serious problems such as heart attacks, strokes and heart failure.”
“Overweight or obese women face a significantly higher risk of heart disease — they are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and cholesterol and are less likely to be sufficiently physically active for heart health,” says Dr Grenfell.
“But high blood pressure and cholesterol are often called the silent killers as there are no obvious symptoms — having a heart attack can be the first sign that something is wrong,” he explains.
In a similar way, high blood cholesterol can gradually clog the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart and other parts of your body. “If your blood vessels become clogged, it can reduce the blood flow to your heart and lead to symptoms such as angina. If a blood clot forms in the narrowed blood vessel and completely blocks the blood supply to part of your heart, it can cause a life-threatening heart attack,” she says.
Research has found more than 40% of women will not experience chest pain. Knowing the warning signs could save your life.
“The fact that heart disease is the number one killer of women is crazy, and that’s coming from someone who has a heart disease,” says Jess. “You hear of many more people having cancer but not so much heart problems. I guess there’s not as much awareness or fundraising for heart disease.
“I s’pose if Dad didn’t pass away we wouldn’t know we had a heart condition, so it would be great to be able to get to the point where we know something’s going wrong before it happens, especially now that I have children of my own,” she says.