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When It Comes to Disease, Women's Fears Are Misdirected

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WebMD Health News

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 Family Medicine.

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 WebMD.

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.

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