The Number One Killer of Women Often Goes Undetected
True or False: A routine medical exam with the usual diagnostic tests will identify whether a woman has heart disease.
False. New research shows that many women’s symptoms often go undetected in regular exams (using the standard stress test and angiogram), and this may be because heart disease behaves differently in men and women.
“This is so important because the number one killer of women is heart disease,” says Bristol-Myers Squibb Vice President of Global Medical Affairs, Cardiovasculars and Metabolics Sharon Henry, M.D. “Many women don’t know their cardiovascular risk factors or the warning signs of heart disease.”
Harvard Women’s Health Watch reports that “newer tests, including ultrasound of the blood vessels, revealed heart problems the angiograms didn’t pick up” because women are more likely to have a vascular dysfunction, such as micro vessel disease, in the smaller vessels that serve the heart.
Some surprising facts:
- One in four women in the United States dies of heart disease, while one in 30 dies of breast cancer.
- Heart disease is the number one killer of U.S. women (58 percent of all deaths); death rates are highest for African-American women.
- While the number of men who die from heart disease yearly has decreased steadily since 1980, the death rate among women with heart disease has barely fluctuated.
“Symptoms may appear differently in women compared with men,” says Henry. “For example, a common sign of heart attack is pain radiating down the left arm. Women may have these symptoms too, or they may have more nonspecific symptoms like feeling increasingly tired. If the fatigue is really affecting you, you need to go and see your doctor.”
Women’s symptoms may include: Feeling breathless, often without chest pain of any kind; flu-like sensations—specifically nausea, clamminess or cold sweats; unexplained fatigue, weakness or dizziness; and/or pain in the upper back, shoulders or jaw, according to the American Heart Association.
“When the symptoms present, women might have a tendency to brush it off or attribute them to something else, such as stress and assume the symptoms will go away,” Henry says. “Often, we do not pursue why we feel that way.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb is helping to raise awareness by supporting the American Heart Association’s effort to educate women, especially during Heart Health month, which is February because of its association with Valentine’s Day. To kick of the month, Bristol-Myers Squibb encouraged its employees to wear red on February 1 in support of national “Go Red for Women Day”—a call for women to take charge of their health and live stronger, healthier lives by recognizing and reducing their risk for heart disease.
“Unfortunately, too few people realize that heart disease is the number one killer of American women (and men),” says Bernadette Connaughton, senior vice president, Cardiovascular/Metabolics, U.S. Pharmaceuticals.
“About 480,000 women die of cardiovascular disease annually,” she says. “The good news is that heart disease is largely preventable."
Scientists and doctors associated with a federally funded study on ischemic heart disease in women are developing a new protocol for screening women for heart disease, but, the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reports that it “may be years before this process is completed.”
In the meanwhile, Connaughton notes that prevention is the best cure. “As a company dedicated to providing innovative, life-saving therapies for cardiovascular health, we encourage women to live heart-healthfully.”
- Maintain a healthy weight, keep cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels low, excercise regularly, and if you smoke, quit.
- Pay attention to symptoms such as unusual fatigue or shortness of breath.
- Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and this article.
- Know your risk. African American women often have more risk factors that can predispose them to suffer heart attacks at an earlier age than whites. In addition, premenopausal women with inflammatory disorders, autoimmune diseases, or low estrogen levels are at a higher risk for micro vessel disease according to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
- To learn more, visit the American Heart Association website at www.americanheart.org and take the heart health checkup at http://www.goredforwomen.org/hcu/index.aspx.
Resources for Women: