Although heart disease is often thought of as a problem for men, more women die of the ailment each year.
It is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., yet data shows female cardiac patients receive inferior medical care compared with men.
According to the data from American Heart Association (AHA), cardiovascular disease killed 455,000 women in 2006. It is the leading cause of death for women 65 and older and the third-leading cause of death for women 25 to 44. Heart disease causes about 72 percent of cardiovascular fatalities; the rest are strokes and other related conditions.
The study by AHA revealed the reason heart disease takes more female lives is that the medical profession pays less attention to how the disease affects women. The disease is often misdiagnosed, with doctors overlooking and under-treating the problem in women.
The most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is some type of pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But it's not always severe in women. The signs and symptoms are more subtle than the obvious crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks.
This may be because women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart, a condition called small vessel heart disease. These can often go undetected in the traditional screening and tests. As a result women receive less referrals to heart specialists, for diagnostic screening.
Many women tend to show up in emergency rooms after much heart damage has already occurred because their symptoms are not those typically associated with a heart attack.
Also depression is twice as common in women as in men, and it increases the risk of heart disease by two to three times compared with those who aren't depressed. Depression makes it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow recommended treatment.
Dr. Joan Briller, director of the Heart Disease in Women program at the Medical Center at Chicago, said the next decade could see major advances as scientists better understand how the biology of heart disease differs in women.
There is an urgent need for women to learn about the symptoms of acute heart disease, which can differ from those in men, and respond promptly if they sense something wrong.
Dr. Susan Bennett, of AHA, said she does not want women to take any chances, “we don’t want women to be saying, ‘I’m not sure, but you don’t need to take care of me right away.’ Women need to be sure that they speak out and say, ‘Listen, I’m concerned. I think I may be having a heart attack.’”