It's the leading killer of women. Are you at risk?
May 22, 2000 -- Betty White isn't one to let colds, aches, or fatigue get in
her way. In fact, the active 74-year-old from Tampa, Fla., says she has
"never been sick a day in her life." But on a vacation to Oklahoma City
last August, sudden pains in her ear, neck, shoulders, and back became so
severe that she stopped at an outpatient clinic for a checkup.
The clinic's doctor ordered a few blood tests and told White she was
probably just getting a virus. White was advised to see her family doctor for
another checkup when she arrived back home. But, as she found out a
week-and-a-half after her first symptoms, her pains amounted to more than just
the flu: She had experienced a major heart attack.
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When White visited her own doctor the day after flying home from Oklahoma to
Florida, he again told her it was probably the flu and sent her home. But as
the days passed, she became weaker and weaker. When she could hardly breathe
and couldn't get out of bed, she was rushed to the emergency room and finally
diagnosed. By this time, 50% of her heart was no longer functioning.
Coronary heart disease, which can eventually lead to a heart attack, is
alarmingly common in women. According to the American Heart Association (AHA),
it claims the lives of a half million U.S. women every year -- making it the
number one killer of women in this country. In fact, despite the perception
that heart disease is a man's illness, it has killed more women than men every
year since 1984, says the AHA.
With heart disease and heart attacks so common in women, you'd think doctors
would be on the alert for their symptoms. But experts say that many women, like
Betty White, aren't being diagnosed and treated as quickly as men with the same
A February 2000 study published in the Journal of the American Medical
Association and conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers showed that women who
went to the emergency room with unstable angina (chest pain) were 24% less
likely than men to be tested for heart attacks or heart disease. Another study
published in the November 1999 issue of the American Journal of
Cardiology again showed that women at emergency rooms were less likely to
be tested for a heart attack or heart disease. What's more, the second study
found that women were also less likely than men to receive lifesaving
medication or surgery after being diagnosed.
These studies both send the same chilling message: because women are less
likely to be tested for heart disease, they are then less likely to be
diagnosed with it. As a result, treatment is likely to be either delayed or
less aggressive than it should be, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a spokesperson for
the AHA and chief of the women's heart program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New