In honor of National Wear Red Day, which seeks to spread awareness about women and cardiovascular disease, we spoke to two cardiologists about five common misconceptions people have about women and heart disease.
MYTH #1: More men die from heart disease than women
FACT: “Since 1984, more women have died from heart disease than men and this gap continues to widen,” says Tiffany Sizemore-Ruiz, D.O. “This is most likely due to delay in women’s care by physicians, the lack of education to women about their cardiovascular risk factors, and the lack of research pertaining to women’s heart health. Women comprise of only 24% of participants in all heart-related studies.” Women’s hearts are different than men’s, says John Martin, M.D.: “Women’s arteries are smaller, coronary angioplasty is riskier and outcomes are less favorable in women than in men.”
MYTH #2: Breast cancer is the #1 killer of women
FACT: “Heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined,” says Dr. Sizemore-Ruiz. She points out that 267,000 women die each year from heart attacks, while nearly 500,000 American women die of cardiovascular disease each year. “While pink remains the dominant color of woman’s health, almost 10 times more women die of heart disease each year than die from breast cancer,” says Dr. Martin. “It is long past time for women to add red to their health awareness wardrobe.”
MYTH #3: If a woman is fit and has no symptoms, she does not have heart disease
FACT: “This is absolutely untrue,” says Dr. Martin. “Heart disease is a silent assassin and spares no body types. Major risk factors for heart disease like high cholesterol and high blood pressure cause no symptoms, and affect women of all body types. Women can have dangerously high cholesterol or blood pressure and never realize it until they suffer a heart attack or stroke. It is very important for all women to be screened for risk factors of heart disease. Again, 64% of all women who die suddenly of heart disease had no previous symptoms.”
MYTH #4: Only older women need to worry about heart disease
“While it is true that the older a woman is the more likely she is to have heart disease, the truth is that heart disease affects women of all ages,” says Dr. Martin. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women 65 and older, the second leading cause of death in women 45-64 and the third leading cause of death in women 25-44. Women of all ages need to be aware of heart disease risk and preventive measures.”
MYTH #5: The symptoms of a heart attack are the same for men and women.
FACT: “Unfortunately a lot of women believe if they are not having chest pain, they must not have heart disease,” says Dr. Martin. “As a result they often seek medical care later than men and suffer bigger consequences.” Dr. Sizemore-Ruiz notes, “Although both women and men can have the typical pressure-like chest pain radiating to the arm or jaw, many women do not have these symptoms at all. Women may only have jaw discomfort, shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue, severe nausea or dizziness.”
MYTH #6: Women are treated the same as men when presenting with heart attack symptoms.
FACT: “Many times, women are not treated the same,” says Dr. Sizemore-Ruiz. “Since a woman may present with different symptoms as stated above, a heart attack may be missed by the ER physician as they do not have ‘typical’ symptoms. After heart attack, women are less likely than men to receive many of the standard of care therapies known to improve survival. This contributes to a higher rate of complications after heart attacks in women as well.”
Dr. Tiffany Sizemore-Ruiz is a practicing board-certified internal medicine physician in South Florida and a cardiology fellow at Palmetto General Hospital in Miami, FL. She is a spokesperson, and serves as the Chair for the Circle of Red committee. She also sits on the executive leadership board for the American Heart Associaiton’s Go Red for Women campaign in South Florida. She is the author and founder of www.SizemoreHeart.com, a blog that promotes and educates women about important health topics, especially heart health.
John D. Martin, MD, FACS, is the Medical Director of Heart and Vascular Institute at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He has made a formidable contribution to the nation’s preventive healthcare movement. In 2000, he along with Louise Hanson, CRNP founded the Dare to C.A.R.E. program that reaches out to the citizens of the community and literally saves lives by offering free cardiovascular disease screenings.