Three ways to stop underestimating women’s heart disease

Published November 21, 2016

Heart disease is the number one cause of death among women in the U.S. killing nearly 300,000 women a year -- more than all forms of cancer combined. Yet many think of heart disease as a man’s problem.

Studies show that women who suffer heart attacks receive less aggressive treatment than men and are therefore less likely to survive. A recent The Health of America report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and Blue Health Intelligence found that women are 27 percent less likely than men to receive an angioplasty, a procedure that opens clogged arteries. Women are also 38 percent less likely to undergo coronary bypass surgery and nearly 5 percent less likely to receive an X-ray examination of blood vessels.

Why the difference in treatment? According to Dr. C. Noel Bairey, Director of the Barbara Streisand Women’s Heart Center and the Linda Joy Pollin Women’s Heart Health Program at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, it started a long time ago when heart disease research focused almost exclusively on men’s hearts.

“Heart disease became an epidemic in the 1950s and 60s,” she explains. "It was predominantly a disease that struck mid-life breadwinners. Research in men was prioritized because that was the family’s economy, that was the U.S. economy—and women were less valued.”

For this reason, we must boost awareness of women’s heart disease while pushing for better treatments. Here are three recommendations to stop underestimating women’s heart disease:

Invest in Sex-Specific Research:

Only 35 percent of participants in heart-related medical studies are women. And nearly 75 percent of cardiovascular clinical trials do not report sex-specific results, even though men’s and women’s hearts are different. Research that is skewed to male physiology and biology puts women at risk. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Women’s Health Initiative is currently studying how women’s hearts respond to treatments. The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Precision Medicine Initiative will likely address these and other key research questions.

Teach Women and Doctors the Signs of Heart Disease:

Heart disease often looks very different in women than in men because women’s symptoms—fatigue, shortness of breath or nausea—are subtler. This often leads to misdiagnoses and delayed treatment. Doctors may find tests that reliably pick up signs of heart damage in men do not always work in women. Building public awareness is essential to lowering risk and improving women’s chances of survival.

Analyze Women’s Heart Health Data:

Health data can be used to examine differences in treatment patterns among men and women. Data can also show us the best practices to care for women of various age groups, ethnicities and socioeconomic groups. This information could be used to draft a patient checklist or doctor protocols.

To view the full The Health Of America Report series, click here.

Women's Heart Health