Think lifestyle and genetics are the only factors in heart disease? Think again. If you’re a woman and struggling to make ends meet, you’re at risk for a heart attack.
If nearly one in three women die from heart disease every year in the United States, why is funding and research only going towards men’s heart disease?
More and more findings show that women are affected by heart disease differently from men. There are persistent myths surrounding women and heart disease, one being that women aren’t at risk for heart attack before menopause. Also important to note is that the signs of a heart attack for women vary dramatically from men.
Studies continue to be done on the different factors that affect women’s hearts, specifically, and one such study found that financial stress, a stress that’s much more likely to affect women and especially women of color, has devastating effects on women’s hearts.
The study, broken down
Researchers used data from the Women’s Health Study, a survey that followed people for around nine years. Stressful experiences from two groups of women were analyzed, with one group having experienced a heart attack. Examples of stressful life events were incurring an injury or losing a job, and three stressful life events were categorized as “traumatic”: a life-threatening illness, a serious assault, or the death of a child or spouse. Unsurprisingly, a traumatic life event increased the risk of a heart attack by 65 percent.
The next most significant risk though, was financial problems. Having money problems doubled women’s risk of having a heart attack. With more women than men working low-wage jobs as well as women on a global scale being paid less than men, women carry financial burdens on a much more pronounced level. So how exactly are women more vulnerable to financial problems, and thus more susceptible to heart attacks?
"Having money problems doubled women's risk of having a heart attack."
Women and financial disparities
According to the National Women’s Law Center, “women make up two-thirds of the nearly 20 million workers in low-wage jobs”. Typically, these jobs pay $10.10 per hour, that’s $20,200 in earnings annually if the work is full-time and year round, which is “barely above the poverty line for a mother with two children”. The law center elaborates on working mothers: “Working mothers are primary breadwinners in 41 percent of families with children, and they are co-breadwinners—bringing in between 25 percent and 50 percent of family earnings—in another 22 percent of these families. At the same time, women still shoulder the majority of caregiving responsibilities. And the characteristics of low-wage jobs pose particular challenges to women as both breadwinners and caregivers.”
Not only are women overrepresented in low-wage jobs, but they are also deeply affected by the wage gap – full-time working women being paid only 78 cents for every dollar paid to men (in 2013). Throw caregiving into the mix, and it becomes clear that all these stresses can easily become hazardous to women’s health.
Women of color are most affected
When it comes to financial stress, women of color tend to be especially affected. The NWLC reports the following numbers from 2013, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men:
- African American women working full time, year round were only paid 64 cents.
- Hispanic women were only paid 56 cents.
- Asian women were only paid 79 cents.
It’s also important to note that women of color have the most difficulty accessing healthcare and insurance. The Kaiser Foundation illustrated back in 2011 the extent that minorities were uninsured:
If women of color have difficulty both getting paid enough and accessing insurance, then the health risks they face are a grim reality with the current study correlating finance to heart problems. People of color are also much more likely to have chronic illnesses, especially illnesses related to heart health or heart disease itself.
So, how do money problems affect health?
Simply put, the less money you have, the less you’re going to put in to take care of your health. The stresses of low pay, caregiving, among other issues that low-income women face, are dealt with in sometimes unhealthy habits. Those with less income are more likely to smoke, and they are more likely to partake in a sedentary lifestyle. They are also more likely to consume less healthy foods with poor control around alcohol. This, along with fewer resources to manage stress can cause irreversible stress on the hearts of women.
What’s being done and how you can help
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped reduce disparities in healthcare, especially for people in the most vulnerable situations. It’s important to advocate for more research to be done in heart health, especially for women and women of color. WomenHeart is a great resource to find support, resources, and take action.
Are you a woman with heart disease who has experienced financial problems? Share your story in the comments below.