Women Are Still Less Likely to be Diagnosed with Heart Disease

Despite a growing awareness over the past several years, only about half (56 percent) of women recognize that heart disease is their No. 1 killer, states the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in a blunt assessment.

And there are striking statistics that women should know about. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., killing nearly 400,000 women, or about 1 in every 5 female deaths, the CDC adds. About 1 in 16 women age 20 and older (6.2 percent) have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., but women are seriously under-diagnosed. That’s partly because heart disease is still widely considered a “man’s disease.”

(Watch video: Heather Johnson, M.D., a preventive cardiologist with the Christine E. Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, discusses women and heart disease. Video by Anthony Vivian.) 

“Research still shows that women are sometimes less likely to receive a diagnosis of heart disease or to have heart-related tests when presenting with symptoms, compared to men,” explains Heather Johnson, M.D., a preventive cardiologist with the Christine E. Lynn Women’s Health & Wellness Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. “Unfortunately, there’s an increasing rate of heart attacks and stroke in women less than 60 years old going on right now in the United States that highlights the importance of us addressing heart risk factors. So, it’s important that women across all age groups, race and ethnicities receive the medication they need.”

There are certain heart-related symptoms that can definitely overlap between men and women. However, there are certain heart-related symptoms that are more common in women, such as fatigue, nausea, dizziness, excess sweating, emphasizes Dr. Johnson.

Overlapping risk factors for both men and women include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history, and smoking.

“However, there are some risk factors that are very unique to women,” said Dr. Johnson. “For example, pregnancy-related conditions. They can increase a woman’s risk for heart disease within about 10 years after delivery. We also realized that there are certain medical conditions that are more common in women, such as lupus, and other rheumatologic conditions. These conditions can also increase risks as far as heart disease in women.”

In January, Missed and Delayed Diagnosis of Heart Disease in Women was the subject of a virtual conference with about 50 participants, including patients, clinicians, hospital personnel, advocates and experts from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. The session was made possible by WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease and the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine (SIDM). And it is just one campaign among healthcare professionals to focus on getting more women properly and promptly diagnosed with heart disease.

Women should also be better educated about lifestyle changes that can improve their outlook when it comes to heart disease and other chronic conditions, said Dr. Johnson.

“Lifestyle changes are still critical. For example, appropriate exercises guided by your medical team, also quitting smoking, heart-healthy dietary and food choices are still part of the treatment plan,” said Dr. Johnson. “Unfortunately, delays in the diagnosis, delays in imaging related to heart disease can lead to complications. So, we want to make sure that women and men get a timely diagnosis and timely treatment of heart disease.”

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