Myths & facts


“A great big thank you for your women’s heart health talk.  Hearing your own heart attack story and what you subsequently learned at Mayo Clinic was so powerful. I had no idea how different a woman’s heart attack experience can be compared to men.  Thanks for an informative and life-saving presentation.”

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Myth:  Most women die from cancer.

♥ Fact: Heart disease has been the leading cause of death for women since 1908.  Six times more women will die from heart disease this year than will die from breast cancer. In fact, heart disease will kill more women than all forms of cancer combined.

Myth:  Heart disease is a man’s problem.

♥ Fact: Since 1984, more women than men have died of heart disease each year.  Women are twice as likely as men to die after a heart attack.

Myth:  Only older women have heart disease.

♥ Fact:   Heart disease threatens all women, even those as young as 30-40.   For example, the rate of sudden cardiac death of women in their 30s and 40s is increasing much faster than in men their same age, rising 30% in the last decade.  

A majority of women aged 25-35, a key audience to learn and practise heart disease prevention, believe that cancer is their greatest health risk.  We know that heart disease is 20-30 years in the making, so young women need to be aware of risk and prevention – especially if they are smokers who take birth control pills. We now know, too, that pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia are strongly linked to future heart attack.  As women approach menopause, our risks of heart disease increase alarmingly compared to men’s risks.

Myth:   Most doctors know about women’s risk of heart disease.

♥ Fact:  A 2005 American Heart Association study showed that only 8% of family physicians and 17% of cardiologists knew that heart disease kills more women than men. And the chances of women being misdiagnosed in mid-heart attack and sent home from the E.R. are far higher than for their male counterparts: research on cardiac misdiagnoses reported in the New England Journal of Medicine* found that women heart patients  under age 55 were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed by E.R. physicians than men of the same age. The consequences of this were enormous: being sent away from the hospital doubled their chances of dying.

Myth:   Women are great communicators, so they know how to talk to their doctors about heart disease.

♥ Fact:   A 2002 survey of women with heart disease showed that only 35% initially told their physicians about their heart-related symptoms, and only 8% of physicians who received this information correctly recognized the health problem as potentially heart-related.  Only 23% of women surveyed asked their physician questions about heart disease even when they were initially diagnosed. And women are far less likely than men are to seek immediate medical help when experiencing cardiac symptoms.

Myth:    Women and men with heart disease get the same care.

♥ Fact:  Far too often, women fighting heart disease are not accurately diagnosed and do NOT receive the care they need when they need it. A study published in the May 2008 issue of the journal Heart showed that among heart patients, women were less likely than men to receive medications like beta blockers, statins and ACE inhibitors – which are crucial to prevent further heart problems.  Women are also less likely than men to receive implanted defibrillator devices to control irregular heartbeats – or even aspirin! – following a cardiac event.

Myth:   If heart disease isn’t in your family, it really isn’t a problem for you.

♥ Fact:  A family history of heart disease does increase risk of developing the disease.  But many women without any family history have heart attacks or heart problems.  Risk factors include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high LDL cholesterol / low HDL cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • physical inactivity
  • stress

Myth:  You can’t do anything to stop heart disease.

♥ Fact:   Yes, you can!  You can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease if you have the information you need, know the questions to ask your physician, and commit to making heart-smart changes to your lifestyle. Experts estimate that up to 80% of heart disease is preventable.

Source: WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease

* Pope JH, Aufderheide TP, Ruthazer R, et al. Missed diagnoses of acute cardiac ischemia in the emergency department. N Engl J Med. 2000;342:1163-1170.

See also: Myths Endure About Women and Heart Attacks, Victoria Times Colonist, February 10, 2011

This page was last updated on January 29, 2014

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