Following my heart attack, my family doctor told me that when she was in medical school, the type of heart attack that I had was called a ‘widowmaker‘.
This was apparently because a 99% blockage like mine in this particular coronary artery was usually fatal, thus making the patient’s wife an instant widow. That story pretty well tells you that men – the ones who could ‘make’ a ‘widow’ – were considered at that time to be the ones suffering this kind of heart attack. Doctors don’t, for example, call it the widower maker . . .
Alas, there are still doctors who are unaware that, since 1984, more women than men die of heart disease each year. In fact, a 2005 American Heart Association study showed that only 8% of physicians (and an appalling 17% of cardiologists!) actually knew that heart disease kills more women than men.
So I was intrigued to run across this chronological overview on Gender and Cardiovascular Disease on Medpedia showing how over the past 40 years, the medical profession has gradually – and I do mean gradually – wisened up to the reality that heart disease is a woman’s disease, too.
Until the past decade, most cardiac research has mainly focused on (older) men’s cardiac risk factors, symptoms, and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Most tests for diagnosing heart disease have been fine-tuned in studies focused on men. The treadmill stress test, for example, has been found to be far less accurate in women than in men, and particularly for identifying single vessel or non-obstructive heart disease – which are both more common in women.
The ‘gold standard’ test for diagnosing coronary artery disease in both men and women is the angiogram, but studies also show that women are less likely than men to be referred for angiography. And some types of non-obstructive heart disease like Prinzmetal’s angina do not show up during angiography unless the coronary artery spasm happens to actually occur during the procedure.
But here’s how things slowly began to change:
- 1970: Women’s experience and tolerance of cardiac surgery began to appear in medical literature 
- 1980: Increased focus on various health issues concerning women (abuse, breast cancer, menopause, cardiovascular health)
- 1995: A chapter on cardiovascular disease in women was written for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
- 1997: The American Heart Association presented a scientific statement on cardiovascular disease in women
- 1999: The American Heart Association presented a scientific statement on the primary prevention of cardiac disease in women in the United States.
- 2004: The American Heart Association provided recommendations on cardiovascular risk factor management for women.
- 1. King. K.M., Paul P. (1996) A Historical Review of the Depiction of Women in Cardiovascular Literature. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 18(1): 89-101.
- 2. Allen, D., Allman, K.K.M., and Powers, P., (1991) Feminist Nursing Research Without Gender. Advances in Nursing Science, 13 (3): 49-58.
- 3. Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada: Heart disease and stroke in Canada. Ottawa, Canada, 1995.
- 4. Mosca, L., Manson, J.E., Sutherland SE. Cardiovascular Disease in Women. A statement for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association. 1997; 96:2468-2482.
- 5. Mosca, L. Grundy, S.M., Judelson, D., (1999) Guide to Preventive Cardiology for Women. Circulation. 99:2480-2484.
- 6. Mosca et al. American Heart Association Scientific Statement. Evidence-Based Guidelines for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Women. Circulation. 2004;109:672-693. accessed: February 15, 2006