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More Women Know Their Heart Risk

Awareness Efforts Helping, but Gaps Remain
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 31, 2006 -- Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, and more women than ever know it.

Increased awareness may explain why cardiovascular deaths are declining among women, but the nation's leading heart group says troubling gaps in education and treatment remain.

In their annual "State of the Heart" report on women and cardiovascular risk, officials with the American Heart Association say there is both good news and bad about efforts to make women and their doctors aware that heart disease is every bit as much of a threat to women as to men.

"Death rates [among women] are down and awareness is up, but there are still gaps in care," says AHA immediate past president Alice Jacobs, MD.

Half a Million Deaths

In 2003, 6 million American women were living with heart disease, 3 million had strokes, and almost half a million died of cardiovascular disease.

That is more deaths than were attributed to the other leading causes of death -- cancer, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's - combined, according to the CDC.

But age-adjusted cardiovascular disease deaths declined by 12% among women between 1999 and 2003. This suggests that awareness efforts are paying off, the experts say.

More than half of American women now know that heart disease is their No. 1 killer. That's almost double the number who knew it in 1997. But education efforts do not seem to be reaching minority women to the same extent that they are reaching whites.

Sixty-two percent of white women had gotten the message that heart disease is the leading killer of women, but only 38% of black and 34% of Hispanics knew their risk.

That is a disturbing discrepancy, says New York Presbyterian Hospital cardiologist Lori Mosca, MD, PhD, because studies also show that women who know they are at risk take steps to improve their own health and that of their family members.

About a third of the women who took part in a recent study, led by Mosca, underestimated their personal cardiovascular risk, based on medical and family history and other risk factors such as obesity and smoking.

In a news conference held yesterday, Mosca called for more education programs that target racial and ethnic minorities, and more study devoted to understanding what motivates women to take steps to reduce their cardiovascular risk.

Diagnosis, Treatment Disparities

Mosca's survey was published in a special issue of the AHA journal Circulation, devoted to women and heart disease.

Other research highlighted in the journal included:

  • Chest pain among women is still not taken as seriously as it is among men. A study found that women with stable angina (chest pain) are less likely than men to be referred for diagnostic tests or receive treatment.
  • Women are more likely to have a worse outcome than men after bypass surgery. The Canadian study found that women were readmitted to the hospital for cardiac reasons more often after having a bypass, but their long-term survival following the surgery appeared to be equal to or slightly better than among men.
  • Researchers reported that electrocardiogram (ECG) abnormalities appear to predict heart disease risk among postmenopausal women. Two separate studies identified two critical markers for cardiac death risk and heart failure. The studies included more than 38,000 postmenopausal women given ECGs. The studies confirm that ECGs should be interpreted using gender-specific measures, the authors conclude.

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