Here’s a news flash: women are not just small men (like cardiologist Dr. Nieca Goldberg‘s book of the same title). In almost every area of our health, there are significant differences between men and women’s responses to both disease and treatment. But because women are not yet equally represented in medical research, our health care professionals have had to assume that diseases and conditions affect both women and men in the same way.
Medical research has focused on the ‘bikini approach‘ to women’s health: breasts and reproductive organs. And if diagnostic tests and treatments work for men, shouldn’t they also work for women? Well, darling readers, here are some sobering facts from the Society for Women’s Health Research that show why this may not be the case:
- women who smoke are up to 70% more likely to develop lung cancer than men who smoke the same amount
- women are twice as likely as men to contract a sexually transmitted disease after unprotected sex with an infected partner, and 10 times more likely to contract HIV
- as we age, women lose more bone mass than men do, which is why 80% of people with osteoporosis are women
- depression is 2-3 times more common in women than in men
- some pain medications are far more effective in relieving pain in men than in women; others work better in women than in men
- women are two times more likely than men to have a second heart attack within one year of the first one
- even common medications like antihistamines and antibiotics can cause different reactions and/or side effects in women compared to men
- women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma and multiple sclerosis
Within the past decade, science has uncovered biological and physiological differences between the sexes in virtually every organ and system of the human body.
And that is why women must – let me repeat that – MUST volunteer to participate in the research studies that will help doctors search for ways to improve the health of both men and women.
And, speaking of women not participating in medical research, why aren’t more women represented in cardiac research trials?
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, more women than men die each year of heart disease. And this stat has been true since 1984.
But that’s a fact you would never guess if you looked at the gender balance in crucial clinical trials that study cardiovascular disease, University of Toronto cardiologist Dr. Wendy Tsang told the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress last fall in Toronto.
Dr. Tsang reviewed landmark clinical trials in three medical journals: The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine. She reported:
“These are major research trials published in the world’s leading medical journals. Trials published in these journals undergo rigorous peer and editorial review.”
But Dr. Tsang’s study found that although women comprise 53% of patients with cardiovascular disease, in clinical trials they represented only:
- 29% of subjects with coronary artery disease
- 25% with congestive heart disease
- 34% with cardiac arrhythmia
In the early 90s in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health implemented sweeping policy changes in research protocol to ensure fair representation of women in cardiac research trials.
But Dr. Tsang explains:
“Our study shows the proportion of women enrolled in landmark cardiovascular clinical trials is substantially lower than you would find in the general disease population.
“What is even more of a shock is that this under-representation has not drastically changed over the past decade.”
So what happened?
The under-representation of women in cardiac clinical trials could be because women are asked to participate far less often than males.
We know that women do volunteer to participate in hormone or breast cancer research trials – both of which are considered women’s issues. Many women may (mistakenly) believe that heart disease is just a man’s disease. Women also tend to develop heart disease later in life than men do; some trials have age restrictions that limit the enrollment of older participants.
However, Dr. Tsang’s research does show women do make up 61% of heart disease prevention trials that investigate exercise and diet. Could this be due to gender stereotyping?
And speaking of older women, they are more likely than men to have more chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease – yet most of what doctors know about these conditions has come from studies on men under the age of 70.
Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson Dr. Beth Abramson adds:
“That’s why it’s important to put a gender lens on heart research. Women must be better represented in research.”
And Dr. Tsang believes that the next step in this research is to figure out what factors affect female enrollment in clinical trials in order to help address this issue.
“A research trial may show that a drug or therapy benefits patients enrolled in the trial − but if women are under-represented in the trial, it makes it difficult to tell if the outcomes of the trial can be applied to women.”
Find out more about gender differences in cardiovascular disease from The Heart Truth. For more information about the general subject of women and medical research, visit The Society for Women’s Health Research.
© Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org
Please browse the Cardiac Research list to find clinical trials now recruiting participants.
- Are women being left behind in cardiac research?
- Cardiac gender bias: we need less TALK and more WALK
- Heart attack misdiagnosis in women
- Heart attacks: “Men explode, but women erode”
- How gender bias threatens women’s health
- Women’s cardiac care: is it gender difference – or gender bias?
- Unconscious bias: why women don’t get the same care men do
- Yentl Syndrome: cardiology’s gender gap is alive and well