RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – February is National Heart Month and the month we bring awareness to cardiovascular disease in women all month long.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. today. More women than men die of heart disease every single year. While we are making progress in reducing deaths from heart disease in the U.S., rates continue to be disproportionately high in women.
Women are undertreated and underserved when it comes to heart disease. Heart disease has long been associated with men— but the truth is, it affects both sexes equally. However, men tend to be treated more aggressively and earlier in their disease. Women present later and often have more extensive disease.
In women, heart disease symptoms can be quite vague and nonspecific. Traditional symptoms are chest pain or pressure, sweating, nausea and pain in the arm or neck. Shortness of breath may also occur. Women may experience these traditional symptoms, but sometimes they don’t.
In women, symptoms are more difficult to tease out. Sometimes they may have a feeling of dread, flu-like symptoms, fatigue, anxiety or pain in the back. The key to preventing unnecessary cardiac deaths in women is for both patient and doctor to know their risks and interpret symptoms within the context of the risk.
There is a larger gender disparity in the way in which men and women are treated. Men are more likely to receive more timely and more aggressive therapies. I think that this may be due to the fact that women are not diagnosed as quickly, may not recognize their own symptoms and may be billed as anxious or depressed when presenting with a heart attack—because they may have atypical symptoms.
While there are lots of advanced treatments available for heart disease, men tend to be treated more quickly are more likely to receive advanced therapies—women do tend to have higher complication rates with cardiac catheterizations and bypass surgery and this increased risk may explain some disparities in care.
I have recently published a book that was released last year titled “Women and Cardiovascular Disease: Addressing Disparities in Care” in hopes of increasing awareness of heart disease in women.
The most important thing we can do is educate patients, families and doctors as to the risks that women face from heart attack and stroke. February and National Heart Month is critical to raising public awareness. Women must work to take control of their own cardiac health—each woman must take stock in her own health—understand her risk and work with her healthcare provider to modify those risk factors.
We are making strides in the right direction. But we have a long way to go. Death rates in women are declining but many women continue to believe that their greatest health risk comes from breast or uterine cancer. We must continue to educate and advocate for women in order to reduce death from heart disease going forward.