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June 2004 Issue
Women’s Heart Health: It’s Quite Different from Men’s
by Michael Fick
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Congratulations, ladies: breast and lung cancer are no longer the major threat to your lives. You’ve come a long way, baby, and now not only equal men, but outpace them, in yet another way. That’s not good news, however. The odds are, by a large margin compared to men and to all other causes of women’s mortality, that you will die from a heart attack, probably earlier than necessary. Many of you die from the same degree of heart attack men survive. Worse, most women and many doctors don’t know what women’s heart attack symptoms are, and many hospitals don’t treat women’s heart problems correctly.

Thought you were relatively immune to heart disease, did you, ladies? Sorry, but:

  • Heart disease kills more women than any other cause -- six times as many as breast cancer -- yet only
  • 1 in 12 of you knew until now that it’s your greatest health risk.
  • About one third of you will die from it, including some youthful, fit, vibrant, apparently healthy women.
  • After menopause, you drop at the same rate as men from heart disease.
  • 50% more women than men die within a year after their heart attacks.
  • Twice as many female as male heart attack survivors have another one within six years.
  • If survived, half of women’s second attacks are permanently disabling.
  • Black women’s risk is double that of white women.
  • 95% of female heart attack victims had warning signs weeks in advance, but
  • 2/3 of female heart attack victims, and many of their doctors, failed to recognize the warnings.
  • Smoking can bring it on 19 years earlier.
  • Diabetes, very often preventable, doubles to triples heart attack odds, more so in women than in men.
  • Even though more women than men die of heart disease, women receive only about a third of the heart disease surgeries … partly because they’re more effective on men’s larger arteries.

To top it off, most heart attacks are still preventable, maybe as preventable as lung cancer. The single most important risk factor for early heart attacks in women is metabolic syndrome (aka Syndrome X, discussed in the August 2000 column), which is easily identified and can usually be reversed by losing some weight.

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