The good news is that women continue to live longer than men. Heart disease used to be considered to be mainly a concern for men rather than women. The bad news is that since we are living longer, we are also susceptible to cardiovascular disease, which tends to strike at an average age of 70, as opposed to 60 for men.
Often the consequences are more devastating for women. According to one study, the death risk for a woman experiencing a heart attack is 1.7 times that for a man.
When a man arrives at a hospital emergency room clutching his chest in pain, everyone immediately assumes he’s having a heart attack and acts appropriately. When a woman comes in complaining of a backache and extreme fatigue, a heart attack usually isn’t the first diagnosis.
Only in recent years has it become apparent that some traditional tools used to assess heart health don’t work as well in women as in men. EKGs and angiograms do not easily identify the subtler signs of microvascular disease.
Screening tools such as the standard treadmill test are reasonably accurate for men but much less so for women unless combined with other tests and overseen by a specialist.
One-third of women who suffer heart attacks report no chest pain, and more than two-thirds say they felt only flu-like symptoms in the weeks and months prior to their attacks.
Such women often seek medical care later than they should, sometimes too late, given the high mortality rate of first-time female heart attacks. Women tend to deny their symptoms, thinking maybe they’re just over-tired. They put off going to the emergency room until after they’ve taken care of dinner and the house is cleaned. They will also go to bed thinking they’ll feel better in the morning.
When a woman suffers a heart attack or is identified with heart disease, there’s a pretty strong chance she will be treated differently — if she is treated at all. Women are less likely to be prescribed cholesterol-reducing drugs, even though research indicates both sexes benefit equally. Similarly, female heart attack survivors are less likely to receive beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, even aspirin — all therapies known to improve survival. They are less likely to undergo bypass surgery, as well.
All this means we need to pay better attention to our bodies. Feed them better, exercise regularly and cut down on stress. Since we’re living longer and longer, we want to also live healthier and healthier.
NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor’s degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, 790-0123, ext. 225.