Cardiovascular disease — an umbrella term that covers different types of conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels, including coronary heart disease, stroke, congenital heart defects, and peripheral artery disease causes about 1 in 3 deaths in the United States.
Also, cardiovascular disease accounts for almost 836,546 deaths each year, making it the “leading killer of both women and men” in the U.S.
However, there are sex differences in the prevalence of some cardiovascular events, such as coronary heart disease — a cardiovascular condition that can ultimately lead to heart attacks.
An established body of research has shown that coronary heart disease is more prevalent among men at any age, which may have led to the common perception that “heart disease is a man’s disease.”
However, more recent studies have started to point out an “alarming” trend, which is a steady increase in the number of young women who die of coronary heart disease.
Now, new research, presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions meeting in Chicago and subsequently published in the journal Circulation, adds to the mounting evidence that heart attacks are increasingly common among young women.
Dr. Sameer Arora, a cardiology fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, is the lead author of the study.
Heart attacks no longer an old man’s disease
Dr. Arora and colleagues examined data on almost 29,000 people aged 35–74 years old who doctors admitted to hospital for acute myocardial infarction between 1995 and 2014.
The researchers found that the proportion of young patients who doctors admitted to the hospital for a heart attack “steadily increased, from 27 [percent] in 1995–1999 to 32 [percent] in 2010–2014.”
The study also found that this increase was even more substantial in women. Namely, 21 percent of the heart attack hospital admissions were of young women at the beginning of the study, but this proportion jumped to 31 percent by the end.
Additionally, the research revealed that young women were less likely than young men to receive cardiovascular treatments, such as antiplatelet drugs, beta blockers, coronary angiography, or coronary revascularization.
Finally, young women were at a higher risk of hypertension, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease compared with young men.
The study’s lead author comments on the findings, saying, “Cardiac disease is sometimes considered an old man’s disease, but the trajectory of heart attacks among young people is going the wrong way […] It’s actually going up for young women.”
“This is concerning,” continues Dr. Arora. “It tells us we need to focus more attention on this population.”
A ‘wake-up call to male physicians’
Dr. Arora explains why cardiologists and other healthcare professionals need to pay more attention to women’s cardiovascular health.
“Traditionally, coronary artery disease is seen as a man’s disease, so women who come to the emergency department with chest pain might not be seen as high-risk,” he says.
“Also, the presentation of heart attack is different in men and women. Women are more likely to present with atypical symptoms compared to men, and their heart attack is more likely to be missed.”
Dr. Ileana L. Piña, a cardiologist and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, also chimes in on the findings.
She says that the results are “another wake-up call to physicians, especially male physicians” to take better care of women’s heart health.
“The number one killer of women is not breast cancer or uterine cancer; the number one killer of women is heart disease […] And, until we pay attention to this, these kinds of figures are going to keep coming up.”
Dr. Ileana L. Piña
Dr. Piña, who was not involved in the research, says that traditional gender roles, which continue to prevail, may stop women from looking after their health.
“It’s hard when a woman is working two jobs and taking care of the family, too,” Dr. Piña says.
“[Women will] do anything for their families, but they often leave themselves for last. We need to teach women to change their health attitude and take care of themselves,” she warns.
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