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Heart Disease in Women

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Graph shows age adjusted death rates, per 100,000 people by race. (2005)

National HeartLung & Blood Institute

HarvardHealth Publications (Gender Matters)

AmericanCollege of Cardiology (Women & Heart Disease)

by M. J. Joachim

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women; in fact, more women than men die of the disease each year.  Astonishingly, though, primary care doctors often fail to heed all the warning signs when diagnosing female patients, according to two recent studies—and long entrenched gender biases appears to be responsible for the failure,” states Prevention Magazine’s August 2009 issue in one of their articles.

What are the signs and symptoms of heart disease?  Should you ask your doctor to look into the possibility of this illness, even if he believes other problems might be the cause of your chief complaints?  Do women get diagnosed in a less timely manner than men, often having their symptoms dismissed as other difficulties?  Do the differences in gender play a role in how and when heart disease is diagnosed and treated?

Signs and symptoms of Heart Disease

While men and women usually suffer the same symptoms of heart disease, and the most common of these is chest pain, women will sometimes exhibit signs that might appear completely unrelated to heart disease.  According to the Mayo Clinic, “Women are more likely than men to have signs and symptoms unrelated to chest pain, such as: neck, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, sweating, lightheadedness or dizziness, unusual fatigue.” 

Women do not show signs of heart disease the same way men do. Nor does the disease progress the same in men as in women.  While men often deal with large arteries getting clogged to the point of severe chest pain, smaller veins and arteries are usually affected in women, requiring doctors to evaluate men and women’s patient care individually, as opposed to relying on routine factors and symptoms that could indicate the disease.

Risk Factors of Heart Disease in Women  

The metabolism of men and women is different.  Women tend to carry extra weight around their mid section which creates a diverse set of standards doctors must consider before ruling out heart disease in female patients.  Even menopause has an effect on the development of heart disease in women, because lower estrogen levels increase the risk of small vessel heart disease. 

Recognizing Heart Disease in Men and Women  

The stereotypical attitude that heart disease is a man’s illness has been proven to be a myth.  According to Medline Plus, “Mention the term "heart attack" and most people imagine a pudgy, middle-aged man drenched in sweat and clutching his chest. Few people seem to consider cardiovascular disease (CVD) as a woman's disease.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women over age 25. It kills nearly twice as many women in the United States than all types of cancer, including breast cancer. Only 13 percent of women think heart disease is a threat to their health.

The misleading notion that heart disease is not a real problem for women can be blamed in part on medical research. For a very long time, heart disease studies focused primarily on men. Changes are under way, but some doctors still fail to recognize the warning signs displayed by female patients.”