A Different View of Cardiovascular Disease

In February 2006, researchers reported that many women suffer from heart disease that is very different from that of men and is easily ignored by standard tests. Also, women don't need treatment as early as men, and women's hearts are smaller and their blood vessels are damaged more quickly. Another possibility is that the disease may appear in a different way. As a result, women are less likely to survive a heart attack than men. Many women are unaware that heart disease and stroke have become the leading killers of women worldwide.

Researchers have found that in some women, instead of creating a noticeable blockage in the arteries that supply the heart, plaque builds up more in the main arteries and small blood vessels. In other cases, their muscles do not expand properly or have spasms, often during physical or emotional stress. These problems are more common in teenage girls and they can be dangerous because they can trigger a life-threatening heart attack. Instead of chest pain, sweating, and shortness of breath, they often complain of vague symptoms such as fatigue, stomach pain, or jaw or shoulder pain. This actually explains why some women have sudden heart attacks even though their arteries seem to be intact and in some cases doctors send them home without treatment or refer them to psychiatrists. Even if they receive medical treatment, these women may not benefit from drugs or treatments such as bypass surgery and angioplasty to open blocked arteries. In most cases, women whose arteries appear unobstructed on a routine exam have a higher risk of having a heart attack or dying within four or five years. The abnormality may be due to hormonal changes or genetics that change the way their muscles work. In America, there are up to three million women who may suffer from these conditions. Despite the new findings, many women have the same types of heart disease as men, and they benefit from the same preventative measures and treatments that help men: a healthy diet and weight; regular exercise; and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It's still unclear how best doctors can deal with these conditions, but the new findings provide important insight into key health issues, and they alert women and their doctors to other manifestations of the disease.