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Aug 20, 2013

Women Neglected by Heart Disease Prevention Efforts

Heart disease kills more women than men each year, yet many still think it’s a “man’s disease.”

Despite the fact that heart disease kills more women than men each year, we’ve yet to overcome the misconception that heart disease is merely a “man’s disease.” Women face unique challenges when it comes to heart disease prevention and according to a paper recently published in the journal of the World Heart Federation, we have a long way to go before we’re able to confront these issues head on.

This paper, titled “Coronary Artery Disease in Women: A 2013 Update” outlined the differences in how heart disease impacts women compared to men and where we fall short in addressing these disparities. So what are the main points that every woman (and man) should take away from this paper?

Most importantly, there is a lack of awareness around women and heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, and worldwide, it accounts for a third of all deaths in women. Yet in 2009, only half of American women knew that heart disease should be their top health concern. And among physicians in 2004, fewer than one in five doctors were aware that heart disease actually kills more women than men each year. This lack of awareness translates to disparities in treatment between men and women. Still today, women are less likely to receive preventative recommendations, like cholesterol-lowering drugs and lifestyle advice, compared to men—even if they have the same risk factors for heart disease. Women also tend to underutilize therapies, such as cardiac rehabilitation following a heart attack, despite the importance and effectiveness of such treatments.

The authors’ second key point was that we’ve only scraped the surface when it comes to understanding the unique ways in which heart disease affects women. Although men and women share a number of well-established cardiovascular risk factors, these risk factors can affect men and women differently. For example, research has shown that obesity increases cardiovascular risk by 64% in women but by only 46% in men. Also, diabetes increases a woman’s risk of heart disease by 3-7 times, yet increases a man’s risk by 2-3 times. And compared to men, women can have unique risk factors like pregnancy and auto-immune disease that can further affect their risk for heart disease.

By writing this paper, authors hope to not only increase awareness about the enormous impact that heart disease has on women, but also spark future research efforts to better understand this issue. With additional research, we can gain a better understanding of how heart disease impacts women differently from men and how we can address these differences to promote better health among both sexes.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Why are women underrepresented in cardiovascular research studies?
  • Since cardiovascular disease was originally thought to be more prevalent in men, most research targeted men as participants. Even now that research has shown that heart disease is not only the number one killer of women and men, and that it actually kills more women each year than men nationwide, many women do not know this. Therefore, the lack of female participation in cardiovascular studies may be largely due to the lack of awareness.  It is also believed that many women, juggling their many responsibilities in life, are often so concerned with taking care of others that they fail to take the time to address their own health needs.
  • What are significant differences in the cardiovascular health of women vs. men?

  • While additional research is needed further understand the cardiovascular differences between men and women, one significant variation is among heart attack symptoms. For men, the most common sign of a heart attack is pain or pressure in the chest. Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to have unusual or "atypical" signs of a heart attack, and some of these symptoms may come and go. The danger is that many women are unaware of these differences in symptoms, and will often disregard a heart attack for fatigue or the flu. There are additional recognized differences between men and women, including the time at which the disease sets in, severity of shared risk factors and the presence of unique risk factors associated with hormonal changes and pregnancy.

Featured Video

Women often experience heart attack symptoms differently than men. It's important for a woman to be able to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and react quickly by calling 911.

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