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Heart Disease

It's the leading killer of women. Are you at risk?

WebMD Feature

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 conditions.

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 York City.

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