By: Dr. Wade May, Cardiologist at Cardiovascular Institute of the South
Health awareness campaigns have done a lot to bring attention to and advance treatment of some our deadliest conditions. Men know to be vigilant in their heart care, and women now know the importance of screening for breast cancer. And yet, heart disease is not just a health concern for men. In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of American women, killing one mother, sister, daughter, and friend every minute. Not only that, while the death rates from heart disease have steadily declined for men over the years, they have remained largely unchanged for women.
Why are there such large disparities in these numbers? For the most part, this gap can be attributed to three main factors:
*Women do not receive enough heart health education
Over the years, much has been done to ensure that both men and their physicians are acutely aware of the looming risk of heart disease. However, significantly less attention has been given to the same conditions in women. Across all races, only 44 percent of women are aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death, and these percentages are even lower amongst Hispanic and African American women despite the fact that they are among the most high risk groups.
Of course, much of the responsibility for this lack of education falls to inadequate research. Past clinical trials and studies have included fewer than 35 percent of women within their study populations, with most generalizing the results across both sexes. This lack of research and education often means that heart disease in women is diagnosed later and treated less aggressively. In truth, giving women a better understanding of their heart disease risk and necessary lifestyle changes could help prevent up to 80 percent of heart disease and stroke occurrences.
*Heart disease risk factors may be different for women
When considering an individual’s state of health prior to a heart attack, researchers have found that women more often suffer from separate health factors. These can include stress, depression, diabetes, and smoking, each of which have been shown to have a higher correlation to heart disease in women than they do in men.
Additionally, there are certain risk factors which are unique to women. Following menopause, for instance, lowered estrogen levels can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease in small blood vessels. And during pregnancy, the development of diabetes or high blood pressure can indicate a heightened long-term risk of these conditions and associated heart disease.
*Heart disease symptoms may be different for women
When thinking of a large cardiac event such as a heart attack, chest pain often comes to mind, and while chest pain is the most common symptom in both men and women, women are more likely to report other, more subtle symptoms instead.
These may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the jaw, shoulder, upper back, or neck
- Nausea or vomiting
By being less likely to experience the hallmark symptoms of a heart attack and being unfamiliar with other probable symptoms, women are more likely than men to overlook their cardiac event or to seek emergency help after the damage has been done.
With more robust research and stronger educational efforts geared towards women, we have the opportunity to make a significant reduction in the number of female lives claimed by heart disease each year. Contact your physician to discuss your own risk and preventative measures, or visit a cardiologist at Cardiovascular Institute of the South.