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Heart Disease Health Center

Silent Risk: Women and Heart Disease

Heart disease kills half a million American women each year. So why are women more afraid of breast cancer?
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Heart disease in women - the numbers are staggering. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, hypertension and stroke, is the number one killer of women, according to the American Heart Association. It kills half a million American women each year. That figure exceeds the next seven causes of death combined. Moreover, women are 15% more likely than men to die of a heart attack. And they are twice as likely to have a second heart attack in the six years following the first.

Yet in a 2000 national heart association survey, only 34% of women correctly identified heart disease as a leading cause of death.

And "only 8% of women saw it as their biggest health threat," says cardiologist Sharonne Hayes, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "There's a disconnect. They know it's a major disease, but they think they're going to die of breast cancer."

Major issues surrounding women's heart health and medical care were brought to light in a survey of 204 women with heart disease reported in the January/February 2003 issue of Women's Health Issues. Hayes, who is Director of Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minn., co-authored the report, funded by WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women With Heart Disease. Among the issues women raised were:

  • Mental illness resulting from heart disease
  • Failure to diagnose heart disease
  • Problems related to physicians' attitudes
  • Dissatisfaction with medical care, including major hurdles in getting support for recovery

Hayes says that awareness about women's heart health is gradually growing among women and healthcare professionals, but there's much room for improvement.

Mental Health and the Heart

One survey result has already changed how Hayes conducts her practice. She was surprised by the high percentage of women -- 57% -- who said they suffered depression, anxiety or both as a result of heart disease. "Following the survey, our women's heart clinic got a psychologist much more integrated in terms of evaluating patients and giving us cardiologists some insight into mental illness that we're not trained for."

That insight may help explain why only 14% of women made lifestyle changes following a heart attack. "If you're depressed, you're unlikely to be able to make the lifestyle changes that you need to prevent another heart attack," says Hayes. But the knowledge should now help healthcare professionals see and treat mental health problems brought on by heart disease.

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