The Gift of a Generation: Women's Heart Disease Risk Dropping

"Textbooks in the 60s and 70s didn't even mention heart disease in women -- weren't really educating women that the risks were there."

But since the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute began campaigns early in the 2000s, introducing the Red Dress as a national symbol for women and heart disease awareness, that has been changing.

"We have definitely started to see a switch, though it's been very slow in coming," says Dr. Jennifer Tremmel, clinical director of Women's Heart Health at Stanford University Medical Center.

Schindler agrees. "We've made great strides in cardiovascular disease. From 1995 to 2005, the death rate from coronary heart disease has declined by 44 percent," he says. "The technology has advanced exponentially."

Education has been the largest triumph over the past decade, says Dr. Malissa Wood, co-director of the Corrigan Women's Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"I have many patients in my practice who might never have gone to the emergency room 10 years ago because at that time they believed heart disease was only a man's disease. [Today], recognition has increased but there is still room for improvement."

Tremmel says the Go Red campaign "has been incredibly effective" in promoting the message of women's heart health.

Know the Signs

One of the stumbling blocks for women with heart disease is that their symptoms may be quite different from the classical signs we associate with heart attacks, cardiologists say.

"In general, men describe pressure in their chest radiating to left arm prior to a heart attack," Schindler says, but with women, there may not be any chest pain at all.

"Women will often get discomfort in their back, shoulder blade, neck, or even jaw. I think a lot of women [go] to other physicians -- I've even had patients go to the dentist -- looking for answers for their symptoms when it fact, a cardiovascular [issue]."

To make matters worse, Miller says, women often "isolate themselves," writing off shortness of breath, cold sweat, or overwhelming fatigue as nothing more than signs they're "getting older." Women become even less likely, then, to seek the treatment they need for cardiovascular health.

"If you are a woman and you have chest pain, you show up to the emergency room on average an hour later than a man -- I think because people are rationalizing that 'this isn't my heart,'" Miller says.

Miles' case also points out the importance of knowing your risks.

While Miles was exercising, eating carefully, and not smoking, she wasn't paying enough attention to her genetic risk.

"In women, family history is probably one of the most important risk factors," says Miller.

"It's critically important to pay attention to the genetics," Schindler aggrees, but Miles says she just "thought [she] could beat it," and had she not been exercising, her heart disease might have progressed considerably before she recognized her risk.

"I don't think I ever would have picked up on this, because with just the normal everyday stuff I did, I had no symptoms," she says.

Lower Risk – What You Can Do Today

So what can women do to protect themselves from heart disease?

The best thing is to know their own risk, says Wood.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...