Women: Know Your Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Understanding Heart Disease

Understanding how women differ from men is the first step in educating and protecting ourselves against the risks of heart disease.

It's not completely clear what accounts for the gender differences in heart disease. We know that there is a clear difference, however, in how women and men are evaluated and treated for heart disease.

We also know that women who come to a hospital with a heart attack are more likely to be misdiagnosed than their male counterparts. As a result, they are also more likely to die. There are many reasons for this disparity.

Understanding the Symptoms of Heart Disease

Women don't often experience crushing chest pain. They are more likely to feel fatigued, short of breath, dizzy or nauseous. In other words, their symptoms are not typical for a heart attack. Nor are these symptoms specific for any disease, so there may be many possible causes — other than a heart attack — for the symptoms.

Additionally, women are usually much older than men when they have their first heart attack because the risk of coronary artery disease increases after menopause.

Historically, women have not been included in many of the clinical trials for advances in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. Therefore, there has been a dearth of evidence for treatments that could help prevent heart attacks in women.

And while the evidence is now mounting, women still are often not given medications that could help prevent heart disease.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Heart Disease

Women, in particular minorities and the poor, are less likely to undergo diagnostic procedures such as stress testing (treadmill testing), cardiac catheterization (angiogram), angioplasty (balloon procedure), coronary artery stenting or coronary artery bypass grafting (bypass operation or CABG, pronounced "cabbage"). Women are also less likely to receive thrombolytics (clot-busters).

These disparities beg many questions: How can we prevent heart disease in women? How can women protect themselves from heart disease? How can women become advocates for themselves?