According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year; this number is roughly equivalent to one quarter of all recorded deaths in the U.S., making heart disease the leading killer of American men and women. However, the latter group is significantly underrepresented in medical studies and tests, and this disparity has led to higher rates of heart disease incidence among female patients.
Sadly, widespread misinformation may be behind the high rates of heart disease incidence in the U.S. The CDC notes several habits and behaviors that can lead to heart disease, such as chronic inactivity, obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes. A recent survey found that 37% of American adults identified with two or more of these risk factors. Many men and women are unable to identify the onset of heart attack; while 92% correctly named chest pains as the key symptom, only 27% could list all of the symptoms of a heart attack (such as body numbness, cold sweating and shortness of breath). In addition, nearly half of all heart attacks occur outside of a hospital, which suggests that many victims are ignoring early warning signs.
The Women’s Heart Foundation notes that women make up only 24% of participants in cardiac health-related studies. As a result, many diagnostic tests are not as accurate for women. 435,000 women suffer from heart attacks every year, while 8 million American women live with chronic heart disease. Roughly 42% of women die in one year or less after suffering their first attack (compared to 24% of men), while heart attacks in women under the age of 50 are twice as likely to be fatal than those in men under 50.
The differences between men and women may be the key to lowering rates of heart disease for both groups. One difference is plaque distribution; men tend to show plague build-up in clumps, while plaque in women is more uniformly distributed throughout the arteries. As a result, many ‘normal’ angiographic tests are inaccurately recorded for women. Women are also less likely to exhibit either chest pain or EKG irregularities; they often display other symptoms, like jaw or back pain and nausea, which can lead to misdiagnosis. For these reasons, many women are not properly diagnosed with heart disease until it has developed into a serious condition; 46% of women will become disabled as a result of heart disease within the next six years, compared to 22% of men.
Physicians and clinical researchers must take into account the physiological differences between men and women in order to reduce heart disease incidence among the latter demographic. Heart disease may be the top killer in the U.S., but most experts agree that proper diagnosis and widespread information about preventative measures could drastically diminish the impact of this deadly condition.
Charlotte Kellogg writes for a public health education website, urging the proliferation of graduate level education for health professionals to address problems like those illuminated in this article.