“I had no clue that this was such an issue, or how ‘at risk’ I am for heart disease. Thank you sincerely for your presentation, and for making a difference in women’s lives.”
Five months after my heart attack, I attended the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women with Heart Disease (the first Canadian ever invited to attend this annual community educator training) at the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Mayo cardiologists taught us more than I ever thought I’d really want to know about women and heart disease.*
What I learned at Mayo Clinic was shocking.
In a nutshell, as my Mayo heart sister Laura Haywood-Cory likes to summarize current findings:
“Sucks to be female. Better luck next life!”
At age 40, Laura survived a heart attack caused by Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. (See also: Cardiac Gender Bias: We Need Less TALK and More WALK.
- most cardiac research over the past three decades has been done either exclusively on male subjects, or with fewer than 20% female subjects (and even early cardiac studies on animals used only male lab animals!)
- women are under-diagnosed and under-treated compared to male heart patients (UPDATE: see the 2016 Scientific Statement on Women and Heart Attacks from the American Heart Association, which confirms what we learned at Mayo in 2008)
- cardiac diagnostic tests may not be as accurate for women as for men
- women experience more delays in symptom recognition and treatment
- heart disease kills six times more women than breast cancer – in fact, heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined
- heart disease kills more women than men every year
- women heart patients are more frequently misdiagnosed than men
- even when accurately diagnosed, women are less likely than men to receive proven guideline treatments (angiography, angioplasty, beta blocker or statin drugs – and even aspirin!)
What we also learned at Mayo Clinic is that of the 45 women attending our Symposium – all of us heart disease survivors – about one-third had been initially sent home from the Emergency Room with misdiagnoses ranging from indigestion to anxiety or menopause. Sadly, misdiagnosis in women is tragically common; a study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that women under the age of 55 are SEVEN TIMES more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the E.R. in mid-heart attack compared to their male counterparts.(1)
I too had been initially sent home from Emergency with an acid reflux misdiagnosis, despite presenting with textbook heart attack symptoms like crushing central chest pain, nausea, sweating, and pain radiating down my left arm. For two weeks, I suffered increasingly worsening symptoms – but at least I knew it wasn’t my heart, because a man with the letters M.D. after his name had told me so quite clearly. I was in deep, deep denial even as my symptoms became unbearable. (Read more about the rest of my story).
Now, whenever I speak to other women about heart disease, I encourage them to:
- empower yourself by not minimizing your health concerns and symptoms
- assume primary responsibility for your health
- become your own best health advocate
- know the warning signs of a heart attack, and have an action plan
- know your personal risk factors and take immediate steps to address them starting today – especially important if you have ever been diagnosed with pregnancy complications, which we now know are strongly linked to heart disease
- find out more about other gender differences in women’s overall health care.
- tell other women you care about what you have learned about heart health
* Do you need a jargon-free, patient-friendly glossary of confusing cardiology phrases and terminology?