Your Health

Women Underestimate Their Risk Of Heart Disease

More than half of American women don't know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in this country, despite plenty of work to boost awareness.

Close up of woman on phone. i

Only a little more than half of women surveyed said they would call 911 if they had symptoms of a heart attack. hide caption

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Close up of woman on phone.

Only a little more than half of women surveyed said they would call 911 if they had symptoms of a heart attack.

Those findings come from a survey, just published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association. Researchers found less than half of women are likely to call 911 if they feel signs of a heart attack. And that many women believe that unproved therapies —like taking vitamins— will reduce their chances of heart disease.

But Dr. Lori Mosca, lead researcher, professor of medicine and director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia University Medical Center, told Shots the results have to be put in perspective. "This study is a classic case of the 'cup half full or half empty,'" she said. "Right now I think it's both. We've made tremendous progress but we still have a long way to go."

Among other issues, the survey found that, despite a narrowing gap, awareness of heart disease as a killer continues to be lower among minorities. But the news that women may not call emergency in the case of, well, an emergency, was "shocking" to Mosca.

Mosca noted that more women die every year of heart disease than men, but that it's "primarily because heart disease is a disease of aging, and women tend to live longer." So, women come to the hospital at a later stage in the disease, which contributes to the gender imbalance in outcomes.

Still, she said that women's diagnostic evaluations are more often delayed than men's. "The dismissal of symptoms is fairly well documented," she said. "This may be because women's heart disease symptoms are more likely to be unusual than men's — like nausea or jaw pain. And physicians are less likely to have heart disease on their radar for women than for men," Mosca said.

In fact, a 2005 study found that fewer than 1 in 5 physicians even knew that more women than men die each year from heart disease. "We have a lack of awareness at the patient level and at the provider level," Mosca said. "It's improving, but we still have a ways to go."

The message? Get your ticker checked earlier in the course of the disease, get risk factors controlled, know what they are, and get to the emergency room on time, says Mosca. You know that old saying: better safe than sorry.



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