How doctors discovered that women have heart attacks, too

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

Following my heart attack, my family doctor told me that when she was in medical school, the type of heart attack that I’d had was called awidowmaker‘.

This was apparently because a 95% blockage like mine in this particular coronary artery was usually fatal, thus making the patient’s wife an instant widow. Please note the gender imbalance: men – the ones who could ‘make’ a ‘widow’  – were considered 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 yearAn American Heart Association survey found that only 8% of physicians (and an even more appalling 17% of cardiologists!) actually knew that heart disease kills more women than men annually.

So I was intrigued to run across this chronological overview on Gender and Cardiovascular Disease showing how since 1970, 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 (white, middle-aged) 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. Even the lab mice used in early studies were male animals.

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 coronary microvascular disease or  Prinzmetal’s angina do not show up during routine angiography (unless the coronary artery spasm happens to actually occur during the procedure).

For more mind-boggling data on the existing gender gap in cardiology prevention, diagnostics and treatment, read this comprehensive report published in the journal, Mayo Clinic Proceedings called Does your hospital have a Women’s Heart Clinic yet? If not, why not?

But here’s how this gender gap slowly began to be addressed:

  • 1970:   Women’s experience and tolerance of cardiac surgery began to appear in medical literature [1]
  • 1980:   Increased focus on various health issues concerning women (abuse, breast cancer, menopause, cardiovascular health)[2]
  • 1995:   A chapter on cardiovascular disease in women was written for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada[3]
  • 1999:   The American Heart Association presented a report on the primary prevention of cardiac disease in women in the United States[4].
  • 2004:  The American Heart Association provided recommendations on cardiovascular disease risk factor management for women.[5]  
  • 2016:  The American Heart Association, 92 years after it was established, finally issued its first ever scientific statement on women’s heart attacks.[6] 

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References:

  • 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. Grundy, S.M., Judelson, D., (1999) Guide to Preventive Cardiology for Women. Circulation. 99:2480-2484.
  • 5.  Mosca et al. American Heart Association Scientific Statement. Evidence-Based Guidelines for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Women. Circulation. 2004;109:672-693.
  • 6.  Laxmi S. Mehta et al. Acute Myocardial Infarction in Women. A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.  

See also:

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9 thoughts on “How doctors discovered that women have heart attacks, too

  1. Pingback: Heart Currents
  2. This is amazing! No wonder we have a long way to go in diagnosing and treating women heart patients just as men are treated. It’s only very recently that academics and heart advocates even started including us in their ‘scientific statements’. Incredible. Thanks so much for this – love your site and have recently started subscribing so I don’t miss one single update.

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  3. With all the attention that Breast Cancer gets in women’s health issues, I had always believed that more women died of breast cancer than heart disease. It’s such an important issue to bring up and as often as possible.

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  4. I don’t think my doctor has seen this list yet, having repeatedly misdiagnosed my heart attack symptoms last year as just being due to “stress” or “anxiety”.

    This is a great website! Thank you.

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  6. More women then men die every year of heart disease. I think most people assume heart disease is a “man’s issue”. I just recently posted on my CPR blog some more thoughts on the subject.

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  7. Good Morning,

    We thought you might like to know that we have featured this article on our website under ‘Top-12-Health-Concerns/HEART/Top-Sites. We also tweeted: ‘Heart Disease in Women is Often Missed. The Website Heart Sisters Can Help!’

    The HWN Team

    Liked by 1 person

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