Women’s heart health: is it being ignored?

Women visiting their doctor are less likely to be advised regarding heart health and more likely to be told to lose weight, according to a recent study that will be presented at the upcoming American College of Cardiology’s 65th Annual Scientific Session.

Although heart disease tends to strike women 7-10 years later than men, it is still a leading cause of death.

The risk of heart disease is often underestimated because of a misconception that women are somehow “protected” from heart disease.

In fact, over the last 20 years, the number of myocardial infarctions in 35-54-year-olds has increased in women but decreased in men.

Among women aged 35-44, the rates of coronary heart disease rose 1.3% each year between 1997-2002.

A new study carried out by the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in California delves into some of the issues underlying this worrying trend.

Study lead Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz says:

“Women’s heart awareness has stalled, despite almost three decades of campaigning by numerous women’s heart health advocacy groups. We wanted to understand what the roadblocks were and why women and their physicians were not taking action to monitor their heart health.”

Anyone who displays risk factors for heart disease, according to medical guidelines, should receive frequent cholesterol and blood pressure checks. They should also be given advice on stopping smoking and information regarding healthy lifestyle changes.

Women’s cardiac health awareness

The team carried out questionnaire research to uncover whether this help and counseling were indeed being provided to women in the same way that it is for men.

GfK KnowledgePanel, a group who organize national polls, set up an Internet survey. The questionnaire was answered by more than 1,000 women across a full range of socioeconomic strata, races and geographical regions. The researchers designed a set of questions asking about any care or advice they had received regarding heart disease while visiting the doctors.

The survey found that 74% of the respondents displayed, at least, one risk factor for heart disease, including irregular menstruation, a family history of heart disease, diabetes and high blood cholesterol.

Just 16% of respondents had been told by their doctor that heart disease could be a risk, but 34% had been told to lose weight.

The women found to be least aware of the dangers of heart disease and its key symptoms were those from lower socioeconomic groups, younger women and non-whites.

Dr. Bairey Merz is concerned about the findings:

“Women feel stigmatized. They are most often told to lose weight rather than have their blood pressure and blood cholesterol checked.

If women don’t think they’re going to get heart disease, and they’re being told by society and their doctors that everything would be fine if they just lost weight, that explains the paradox of why women aren’t going in for the recommended heart checks. Who wants to be told to lose weight?”

The findings suggest that, although obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, by solely concentrating on this one facet of women’s health, their chances of receiving the appropriate monitoring and counseling is reduced.

75% of women do not discuss heart disease

Although this study focused purely on women, another research has shown that men in similar circumstances are more likely to get heart health advice and are less commonly advised to lose weight.

The findings fit neatly alongside research carried out in 2015 by the same team. The previous work asked cardiologists and primary care physicians about how they advise female patients with risk factors for heart disease.

Dr. Bairey Merz says that the earlier findings confirmed that physicians “seem to prioritize weight loss over pretty much everything else.” The recent study also found that more than 75% of women do not discuss heart disease, perhaps partly due to the stigma surrounding weight.

The team believes that evidence-based communication to help dispel the stigma surrounding weight and improve knowledge about heart disease risk factors will be key to altering these concerning patterns.

Medical News Today recently covered research pinpointing a gene that increases the risk of heart attack in women.

Low awareness raises women’s cardiovascular risk.

Women are putting themselves at risk of heart disease through lack of awareness, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015.

Heart disease and stroke are the most common causes of death among American women; 1 in 3 women’s deaths are caused by heart disease and stroke in the US every year.

Although heart disease and stroke death rates among men have dropped steadily over the last 25 years, women’s rates have fallen at a much slower rate.

Moreover, 64% of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.

Those who know another woman with heart disease are 25% more likely to be concerned about it for themselves and 19% more likely to bring up heart health with their doctors.

However, most women say they do not have a personal connection to the cardiovascular disease.

Survey highlights need for awareness

A team from the Women’s Heart Alliance, led by Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center and professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA, carried out a survey of 1,011 adult women.

They questioned a random sampling of women ages 25-60 across the US in an online survey that took about 15 minutes. Women were provided computers and Internet access if necessary. Researchers factored out the effects of age, region, race, ethnicity, education and income.

The survey showed that only 27% of women can name a woman in their lives with heart disease and only 11% can name a woman who has died from it. Among those aged 25-49, about 23% know a woman with heart disease, compared with 37% of women aged 50-60.

In addition, it was found that health care providers more often focused on a woman’s weight rather than other cardiovascular disease risk factors, whereas men were more likely to be told that their cholesterol or blood pressure is too high by their doctors.

The results highlight the disconnect most women experience the widespread nature of women’s heart disease and their personal perceptions.

Dr. Bairey Merz says:

“Awareness of heart disease is crucial. We are stalled on women’s awareness of heart disease, partly because women say they put off going to the doctor until they have lost a few pounds. This is clearly a gendered issue.”

Dr. Bairey Merz advises women to be screened for cardiovascular risk, including finding out their atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) score, also called the A-risk score.

She says that every woman of 40 and over needs to find out their A-risk score, and those under 40 should know their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. She also urges women to talk to their doctor about heart disease risk.

Based on age, sex, race, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood pressure medication use, diabetes status and smoking status, users can get a 10-year score for cardiovascular disease risk, and also a lifetime risk score.

A risk calculator developed jointly by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology in 2013 helps identify women at risk of heart disease.

Medical News Today recently reported that young women with diabetes have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.