You've all heard the alarming statistics concerning women's heart health and gender differences in treatment and survival: 90 percent of women in the U.S. have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke and are more likely to die from a first heart attack than men. To top it off, when women do survive a heart attack or stroke, they have more complications.
As Dr. Holly Anderson, director of education and outreach for the Perelman Heart Institute, pointed out on "The Dr. Oz Show": "Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death for women — more than all cancers combined - and it is on the rise, especially in young women, ages 29 to 45."
Women need to become aware not only of specific cardiovascular conditions that they face but also what to do when interacting with the doctor who provides their primary care and how to handle it if they land in the emergency department.
Why are younger women having more heart woes? The obesity and Type 2 diabetes epidemics are hitting premenopausal women hard, and they deliver a one-two punch for cardiovascular diseases. In the U.S., obesity rates are the highest among middle-age adults (41 percent for 40- to 59-year-olds), while Type 2 diabetes affects around 11 million adult women under the age of 65.
Know this: Starting at age 20, women should have their blood pressure checked at least every two years and their LDL and HDL cholesterol, triglyceride and blood-sugar levels checked every four to six years. Women at higher risk due to age, weight, lifestyle habits and family history need to be checked more frequently.
Postmenopausal women should have an annual heart health checkup that includes levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, CRP (an inflammation marker) and blood pressure. If your doc doesn't suggest it, insist.
The differences between men and women's heart woes: Almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease experience no previous symptoms. If they do have symptoms, they may show up at an older age and be distinctly different from men's. Also, women wait longer to get medical help after the onset of a heart attack; are more apt to have other complicating health problems (in part because they're older); respond differently to treatments; and are not given comparable treatments.
Clues you can use: A month before a heart attack, a woman may report being unusually fatigued (71 percent); experience sleep disturbances (48 percent), shortness of breath (42 percent), indigestion (39 percent), anxiety (36 percent) or a rapid heart rate (27 percent); and her arms may feel weak or heavy (25 percent). That's why Dr. Jennifer Haythe, a specialist in women's heart health at Columbia University in New York, says, "It is my hope that women would go to the hospital more often for symptoms that MAY be heart-related and demand from doctors that they not be overlooked or told they are hysterical."
What doctors can do to make sure YOU survive and thrive
A recent study says that if a woman goes to the emergency room for a heart attack, her chances of survival are substantially better if a female doctor works on her. So the Harvard Business School researchers who did the study recommend women ask for a female doc in those circumstances. But you may not be able to ask or there may be no female cardiologist available, so clearly that's not a good answer to the problem.
According to a Cleveland Clinic study, when doctors follow a four-step protocol for the most severe type of heart attack, it eliminates or reduces gender disparities in care and outcomes typically seen in this type of event. Women should talk with their primary care doctor and cardiologist (if under care of one) about their awareness of the gender discrepancies in diagnosis, treatment and outcomes, and find out which hospitals in your area are known to practice gender-neutral protocols in their emergency departments.