When It Comes to Disease, Women's Fears Are Misdirected
June 14, 2000 -- The majority of American women fear breast cancer more than
heart disease despite the fact that heart disease is by far the single greatest
threat to their health, a nationwide survey shows. Each year in the U.S., heart
disease accounts for more than half a million deaths among women, while breast
cancer accounts for about 43,000 deaths.
The lead researcher of the survey, Lori Mosca, MD, MPH, PhD, tells WebMD
that she was "very surprised" at the low level of awareness of American
women about the dangers of heart disease. She says the main message of the
survey is that efforts need to be focused on changing women's behaviors.
"The main thing that women need to know is that [heart disease] is
largely preventable," says Mosca, who is director of preventive cardiology
at New York Presbyterian Hospital. "Women need to be empowered to discuss
their risks and risk factors with their doctors."
In 1997, Mosca and colleagues surveyed 1,000 women aged 25 and older about
their knowledge of heart disease and stroke. The questions also tested their
knowledge of symptoms of the two and how the diseases can be prevented. They
report the findings of the survey in the June issue of the Archives of
Overall, only 8% of women listed heart disease as their main health concern,
and less than 33% knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death among
women. Women age 35 and older were more likely than younger women to recognize
the serious threat of heart disease. Compared with white women, Hispanic women
were more likely to believe that cancer and AIDS were the leading causes of
death among women.
Less than 20% of women in all ethnic groups considered themselves to be
"well-informed" about heart disease, and less than 15% said they were
"well-informed" about stroke.
Warning signs of stroke, such as slurred speech, headaches, sudden vision
problems, and unexplained dizziness, also were not identified by the majority
of women. Approximately 7% of women could not identify any of the warning signs
of a heart attack, which include chest pain, shortness of breath, pain in the
arm, tightness in the chest, and nausea.
Mosca and colleagues say women may perceive heart disease and stroke as less
life-threatening or less debilitating than breast cancer, which may explain why
they know so little about their risks and the warning signs.
"It's important that women at least recognize that as they go through
menopause, their risk factors for heart disease worsen," Mosca tells
But one positive aspect of the survey is that 73% of the participants
expressed interest in talking to their doctor about things they can do to
reduce their risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, the majority who were
willing to have such a conversation said their doctor never made an attempt to
discuss heart disease with them.