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Heart Disease Health Center

Heart Attacks Hit Middle-Aged Women

Heart attack risk is rising in U.S. women -- decades earlier than you might expect. Find out why, and what women can do about it.
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Heart Attacks Rising in Middle-Aged Women

Here's a quick look at the rising heart attack rate among middle-aged U.S. women.

That trend, reported in 2009, is based on more than 8,000 U.S. men and women aged 35-54 studied between 1988-1994 and 1999-2004.

During both time periods, heart attacks were more common among men than women. But men's heart attack rate dropped from 2.5% to 2.2%, while women's heart attack rate rose from 0.7% to 1%.

In short, heart attack rates headed down for men, and up for women.

Why? Men had a few things going for them. Their blood pressure dropped, their HDL ("good") cholesterol improved, and they were less likely than women to smoke.

"The lower rates of smoking, improved blood pressure levels, and improved HDL among men suggest that educational campaigns aimed at men are working," says researcher Amytis Towfighi, MD, of the University of Southern California.

But women showed only one positive trend: an improvement in their HDL cholesterol level. They also had two major drawbacks: a higher rate of smoking and an uptick in diabetes, most likely because of obesity.

Heart Attack Hazard: Obesity

About 35% of U.S. women are obese, according to the CDC. And those extra pounds pack a cardiovascular threat.

"We used to think obesity was a risk factor simply because it is associated with established risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes and high cholesterol levels. But now we recognize that by itself, it increases risk," says Martha L. Daviglus, MD, PhD, professor of preventive medicine and medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

Heart Attack Hazard: Missed Diagnosis

The rise in heart attacks among middle-aged women may be partly due to the fact that doctors are getting better at diagnosing them.

In 2003, a study published in Circulation showed that female heart attack patients may not suffer the typical symptom of acute chest pain. Instead, they were more likely to have weakness, breathlessness, and fatigue. Nausea, dizziness, feelings of indigestion, and back pain were also linked to women's heart attacks. Doctors and heart organizations got the message out that women's heart attack symptoms can differ from men's heart attack symptoms.

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