When it comes to women’s health, breast cancer tends to get more attention than heart disease. But new research shows at least five times as many women die from heart disease as breast cancer and misconceptions about cardiovascular risks among women — and doctors who treat them — is partly to blame.
In a new study published in Global Heart, the journal of the World Heart Federation, researchers from Ohio State University found that awareness of women’s risks of developing coronary artery disease (CAD) has increased over the past decade, but men are still more aggressively treated at the first signs of the heart-related condition.
The research indicates CAD kills at least as many women as men each year, but doctors are less likely to recommend preventive measures for women, compared to men at risk for the condition — such as lowering cholesterol, taking aspirin, or making lifestyle changes in their dietary and exercise habits.
One reason: Heart disease is still largely considered a "man’s disease" by many women and doctors who should know better, according to lead researchers Martha Gulati, M.D., and Kavita Sharma, M.D.
"One in three women get heart disease; one in two get heart disease or stroke, and one in eight get breast cancer," Dr. Gulati tells Newsmax Health. "One in four women die from heart disease and one in 30 women die from breast cancer. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Lack of awareness is a [factor]."
According to the study, cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death for men and women worldwide, killing 8.6 million women alone each year. That's one-third of all deaths in women.
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease — including heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke — kills nearly a half-million women in the U.S. each year. That figure exceeds the next seven causes of death combined. More women die from CAD than of all cancers (including breast cancer, which kills about 40,000 women annually), respiratory conditions, Alzheimer's disease, and accidents combined. Women are also 15 percent more likely than men to die of a heart attack and twice as likely to have a second heart attack in the six years following the first.
The new study did contain a bit of good news: The overall death rate from heart disease in the U.S. has dropped by 30 percent since 1998. But rates among women under 55 years old are still rising, with women under 50 who have a heart attack twice as likely as men to die. What’s more, 42 percent of women who have heart attacks die within a year, compared to 24 percent of men.
The researchers added that while most American women can identify breast cancer as a risk to their health, few can do the same for heart disease.
Dr. Gulati — a cardiologist at Ohio State and author of the book Saving Women’s Hearts: How You Can Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease With Natural and Conventional Strategies — notes symptoms of heart disease in women are often different from men. That may be why it might not occur to a woman or her family members — or her doctor — that she has heart disease.
For instance, heart attack often produces a dramatic crushing chest pain in men — sometimes accompanied by arm pain and shortness of breath. But many women may merely feel sick to their stomach or like they have the flu. Women may also feel anxiety, dizziness, fatigue, a dull ache in their left arm, jaw, chest, or back instead of the more severe painful symptoms men experience.
The new research highlights other differences between men's and women's heart risks:
- Obesity (tied to lack of exercise and unhealthy diets) increases the risk of CAD by 64 percent in women but only 46 percent in men.
- CT scans and other imaging techniques show that women have narrower coronary arteries than do men, which may account for the greater risks women face.
- Women with an immediate family member who has had CAD face greater risks than men.
- Diabetes raises a woman's CAD risk by three to seven times, while for men it is two to three times.
The researchers said awareness of the impact of CAD on women is growing. In 1997, only 30 percent of American women surveyed were aware that the leading cause of death in women is heart disease. By 2009, that level of awareness had grown to 54 percent. But that figure still indicates many women mistakenly believe breast cancer is a bigger threat to their lives than heart disease. In addition, fewer than one in five physicians recognize that more women than men die each year from CAD.
"I think [the public awareness campaign] about breast cancer screening is a huge success," Dr. Gulati says. "We have not done the same yet for heart disease.
"[Resolving the issue] is going to take increasing women’s awareness, increasing physician awareness, teaching this within nursing and medical schools, and making cardiac screening an essential part of primary care … The big issue lies in the fact right now that if a woman has a heart attack she is less likely to get the same treatment as a man. That needs to change."
Health experts recommend the following heart-healthy tips:
Diet: Consume at least five daily servings of fruit and vegetables; limit consumption of fried and fatty foods; buy lean, low-fat protein; and choose lower-fat and whole grain foods.
Exercise: Get at least 20-30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week (150 minutes weekly). That activity should be strenuous enough to increase your heart rate and make you break a sweat, but light enough that you can carry on a conversation.
Stress: Look for ways to lower your stress level through exercise, relaxation techniques, Yoga, swimming, or other activities.
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