A Public Health Outreach Oversight: Signs of Heart Disease in Women
September 6, 2012 by Charlotte Kellogg
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
Common thinking says that heart disease is a mainly a man’s disease, and as such, the majority of tests have focused on the effects of heart disease in men. While women are frequently reminded through public service campaigns to be cautious of diseases like breast cancer, in reality, heart disease is more than ten times as likely as breast cancer to cause death among women. In truth, heart disease, which often leads to heart attack, is the number one cause of death for women in the U.S. The lack of research into heart disease among women is proving deadly, with women today facing a 50% higher chance of dying during heart surgery than the risk faced by men, and the dearth of educational material on the subject has left many women oblivious to the signs of danger.
“Women’s hearts are different than men’s,” says Hope Ricciotti, MD, of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospital. “Researchers from Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital believe that women also have a different intrinsic rhythmicity to the pacemaker of their hearts, which causes them to beat faster.” For these reasons, some diagnostic procedures are not as accurate in women as they are in men. The exercise stress test, for example, has been shown to give a false positive result in young women with a low likelihood of coronary heart disease. Among medical professionals, gender bias can also prove injurious, as doctors frequently assume men and women indicate symptoms in similar ways, when in reality there are several differences.
In both men and women, the most common warning sign of a heart attack is chest discomfort. The majority of heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, in some cases even disappearing only to come back moments later. In women though, there are a number of other common symptoms. Women are more likely to report fatigue than men, as well as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain. However, since many of these symptoms are not frequently associated with heart attack, women often avoid or delay medical care. Often, they are misdiagnosed as suffering from indigestion, gallbladder disease or anxiety. This lack of awareness among both patients and their doctors has contributed to nearly 500,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease among women, a number many are shocked to find is nearly double the number of deaths caused by all types of cancer combined.
Fortunately, awareness of the differences in the female and male experience regarding management of heart disease has grown in recent years. The National Institutes of Health Women’s Health Initiative and the Women’s Heart Foundation have offered valuable information regarding the specifics of female cardiovascular health. Many medical professionals recommend women become more assertive with their physicians, asking questions about cardiovascular health, undergoing diagnostics and even taking medications like low-dose aspirin, statins or cholesterol-reducing drugs to lower blood pressure. Opening a dialogue in the medical community as well as within women’s respective family and friend circles can go a long way toward illuminating the truth regarding heart disease among women and increasing awareness for a disease with ample opportunity for prevention.
In today’s post by Charlotte Kellogg, a researcher and writer for the online resource, PublicHealthDegree.com, she investigates the too often overlooked killer of women: heart disease. Although public health advocates have made sure that women are well aware of the threat of cancer, they have failed to properly educate women and their doctors about the disease and its symptoms. As noted in a New Agenda blog post from 2010, heart disease is unfortunately ignored or lumped under the sphere of obesity and its effects, and should be paid proper attention so that women know the risks.