Lisa Nelson RD #2: For women the signs of a heart attack are more subtle. What should women watch for? If everyone responded to every arm/jaw/chest/indigestion/feeling "not quite right" symptom, they'd never leave the ER!
Dr. Shelby-Lane: The female heart often is misdiagnosed.
True or false: Every year, more women die of heart disease than men.
The answer is true, but if you didn't know it, you're not the only one. In a survey of 500 physicians led by preventative cardiologist Lori Mosca, M.D, Ph.D., less than 20 percent knew the answer.
When it comes to women and heart disease, ignorance can be deadly. The misconception that heart disease is a "man's disease" is the main reason women are misdiagnosed, or receive delayed treatment, when experiencing symptoms of heart disease and even a heart attack.
Consider these findings:
In a recent study at Weill Medical College of Cornell University/New York-Presbyterian Hospital, 230 physicians were given hypothetical cases of men and women with identical symptoms of heart disease. Half of the case studies included reports that the patient recently had a stressful experience or felt anxious. When this detail was included, doctors diagnosed heart disease in 56 percent of men compared with just 18 percent of women.
They referred men to cardiologists twice as often as women, and prescribed cardiac medications to almost half of the men, versus a paltry 13 percent of the women. Researchers concluded that in the presence of stress or anxiety, symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath were more likely to be attributed to anxiety in women but seen as potential signs of heart disease in men.
Another study at Tufts Medical Center in Boston found that among people who called 911 complaining of cardiac symptoms, women were 52 percent more likely than men to experience delays during emergency medical service care, a potentially critical difference because treatments for a heart attack are typically most effective when given within 1 to 2 hours of the start of the attack.
"We often hear women patients say that their complaints were dismissed or that they were ‘blown off' by their doctors when they presented with heart disease symptoms," says Lori Mosca, M.D., Ph.D., director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. "Studies show that there is a gender bias out there that women need to be aware of. Our own research has shown that physicians are likely to label a woman at lower risk for heart disease than a man who has the exact same calculated level of heart disease risk."
So how can you protect yourself? Dr. Mosca offers these suggestions:
Know your risks for heart disease, such as your waist size, smoking and exercise habits, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. If you smoke, quit. Talk to your doctor about diet and exercise changes you can make to lower your risks, and, if appropriate, medications that might help you. Try this quick test at home: Wrap a tape measure around your waist right at the level of your belly button (don't suck in your stomach). If your waistline measures 35 inches or more, you are more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes and an increased risk of dying of heart disease than a woman with a normal waist size.