Many people assume breast cancer is the leading killer of American women. They’re wrong. That dubious honor goes to heart, or cardiovascular, disease. It claims more than 400,000 lives each year, according to the American Heart Association.
Cardiovascular disease actually kills more women than all types of cancer combined.
Cardiovascular disease includes numerous heart and blood vessel conditions, including coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure and stroke.
There are several reasons that the condition is more dangerous for women.
For starters, most heart disease symptoms are often different in women than in men. For men, heart attack often causes a scary, overwhelming chest pain. But women may just feel like they have the flu or are sick to their stomachs.
Women may also experience anxiety, dizziness, fatigue, or a dull ache in their left arm, back, chest or jaw, compared to the more intense sensations felt by men.
Menopause plays its part. Estrogen helps protect women against cardiovascular disease. After menopause, women have reduced levels of estrogen, and are more at risk for cardiovascular disease.
Reduced levels of estrogen can change the blood vessel walls, which may cause blood clots and plaque to form. Or women see their levels of low-density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) increase and their levels of high-density lipoproteins (good cholesterol) decrease.
These changes cause high cholesterol and fat buildup, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That can pave the way to heart attack and stroke.
One in five women don’t have health insurance, which is another risk factor. Being uninsured often means inadequate access to health care, lower standards of health care, and poorer health outcomes.
In addition, many women and doctors don’t realize that cardiovascular disease is such a threat, and therefore women often receive less aggressive diagnosis and treatment. This also leads to poorer health outcomes.
In a study published in Global Heart, Ohio State University researchers found that awareness of women’s risks of developing coronary artery disease have increased over the last 10 years, but men are still more aggressively treated at the first signs of cardiovascular disease.
Doctors are less likely to recommend that women begin preventive measures for CAD such as lowering cholesterol, making lifestyle changes or starting an aspirin regimen, as compared to treatment provided for men.
There are also gender differences when it comes to cardiovascular disease medications. Researchers have found drugs that are beneficial for men may be harmful to women. As a case in point, digoxin, which treats heart failure patients, was associated with an increased risk of death among women, but not men, stated the American Heart Association.
Turning the tide on cardiovascular disease, and its dangerous toll on women, will take an increased awareness of the problem — among both women and their doctors.
One way to start would be to teach about this problem in medical and nursing schools, as advised by NewMax.com. And cardiac screening must become a routine part of women’s primary care.
Reviewed February 17, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
"Women & Cardiovascular Disease." My.ClevelandClinic.org. Cleveland Clinic. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
Tate, Nick. "Why Heart Disease Kills 5 Times More Women Than Breast Cancer." Newsmax. 2013. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.