Story by Jeanie Edgmon

Don’t Miss a Beat in Women’s HEART Health 

If there was a disease that took the lives of over one million Americans every year, over half of those being women, we’d likely

know quite a bit about it and actively work to prevent it in our own lives, wouldn’t we? There is such as disease and the truth is, as a community of American women, we do not know or do enough to protect ourselves from it. That disease is heart disease. We take care of our families, our homes, and our jobs but ask us if we take care of our own health and the answer is probably not like we ought to. In fact, caring for our heart is likely behind a long list of other concerns and that is exactly why the American Heart Association wants to reach women with some hard truths about heart health through their Wear Red for Women’s Heart Health Day, February 2, 2024.

 Go Red for Women

Here at Healthy Kansas City, we are unashamedly and wholeheartedly for awareness campaigns, and the Go Red for Women is no different. It might seem pointless to pull out the red duds and sport them around town, but we will. Why? Because it really isn’t pointless. Not only does wearing red show support for all those who have lost their lives to heart disease and honor those living with it currently, but it also shows that heart disease isn’t just a man’s disease, a common misconception that kills countless women every year. Awareness saves lives, and when it comes to women and heart disease, there simply isn’t enough of it.

More Women Than Men Die From Heart Disease

It astonishes many people to learn that since 1984, more women than men die from heart disease. In fact, women are 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. There are many contributory factors, such as women generally being more concerned about the health of others over their own. Despite this fact, only one in five women thinks that heart disease poses a serious threat to their health. Conversely, incidents of heart disease have been declining in men for more than 25 years.

Research in Women’s Heart Health Has Been Historically Minimal

When looking at the traditional risk factors and the declining death rate in men due to heart disease, we thought diagnosing and treating women would look very similar. Today, however, medicine recognizes the physiological differences between men and women impact disease risk factors. Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, Cardiologist & Director of Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has been researching this issue for the last 15 years and has written a guide concerning risk factors for women called the Women’s Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation (WISE) Coronary Vascular Dysfunction. The barrier now is that not all physicians are aware of the female patterns concerning this disease, something raising awareness around the disease can help to change.

Heart Disease is Less Likely to be Recognized in Women

In addition to dismissing symptoms, women are less likely to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack in the first place because they are looking for the symptoms as they present in males. It is important to understand that women may but don’t necessarily feel that classic description of chest pain. More typically, women get shortness of breath, arm pain or tiredness. As many as 64 percent of women who die suddenly from heart disease never had any symptoms at all. Some have very minimal symptoms that often appear to be similar to the flu.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds found that women had a 59 percent higher chance of being misdiagnosed and receiving a wrong initial diagnosis than men following a heart attack.

We Approach Women’s Health Differently

Collectively, as a society, we treat women’s health differently. Women tend to dismiss any unusual symptoms afraid to be seen as melodramatic, pushy, or anxious. Even in extreme illness during a cardiac arrest where the heart has stopped, bystanders are much less likely to provide life-saving CPR, according to data from the research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2017, a premier global exchange of the latest advances in cardiovascular science for researchers and clinicians. Interestingly, the study showed that 35 percent of women and 36 percent of men received CPR in the home, showing no significant difference in the likelihood of one gender getting assistance over the other in this setting. In public settings, however, 45 percent of male adults received assistance compared to 39 percent of female adults. The same study states that men were 1.23 times more likely to receive bystander CPR in public settings, and they had 23 percent increased odds of survival compared to women. Studies also show that women are less likely to undergo potentially lifesaving tests to check their heart such as coronary angiography (a special x-ray test of the coronary arteries), or receive treatment like stents or heart surgery or state-of-the-art medications. And, because research in this area has largely been centered on the male population, our understanding of best treatments are therefore best treatments for men, not necessarily best for women.

Women Should Start Being Concerned Earlier

Helping women to understand that the risks are real is difficult enough, but we also need to help them recognize the risks earlier. Heart disease isn’t something to begin to worry about in your 50’s or 60’s. Recent data shows that the risk factors for heart disease are rising in women in their early 20’s and 30’s as well. Even physically
fit women should be concerned. While being healthy and active does help reduce the risks of many serious health conditions, it isn’t a guarantee. The American Heart Association strongly suggests that all women start getting their cholesterol checked at the age of 20. With increased advocacy, we can help another generation of women
avoid the deadly impact of the disease by encouraging them to adopt healthy heart habits now.

Awareness is Growing

In any cause, it is easy to grow weary but recent data should encourage us to keep up the fight. Though American women still underestimate the risk with only 8 percent seeing it as their biggest threat, researchers say awareness of the impact of heart disease 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, and it continues to rise. Thanks to these efforts, the American Heart Association reports that over 600,000 women have been saved and 330 fewer women are dying each day from heart disease.

Commit to Heart Health

No matter the health issue, there is no quick fix, no easy answers, and most importantly no way to do it alone. It will take the steady and concerted efforts of many. The fight is all of our responsibility, and with awareness, we can make a difference.