Your biological sex can determine how a particular disease or health issue will impact you. A host of disorders such as Alzheimer’s, autism, UTIs and specific cancers, differ in their incidences among the sexes.
But in these, heart problems have a peculiar spot. Here’s why.
Heart attacks strike men at younger ages than women. But survival rates are worse in women.
According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, a woman is three times more likely to die of a heart attack as compared to a man. Yet, their heart conditions remain undetected for the longest time. What explains the discrepancy?
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Heart Disease: The Greater Killer
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of top 10 non-communicable causes of death among women, holds ischaemic heart disease (coronary heart disease) responsible for the maximum number of deaths in 2016.
In fact, cardiovascular disease is an important cause of death following breast cancer. Dr JoAnn Pinkerton, Director of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS), explained this link in a ScienceDaily report. "Heart disease appears more commonly in women treated for breast cancer because of the toxicities of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and the use of aromatase inhibitors, which lower estrogen. Heart-healthy lifestyle modifications will decrease both the risk of recurrent breast cancer and the risk of developing heart disease.”
The Age Factor: Why Heart Disease Affects Women Later Than Men
If there has to be one answer, it is estrogen and the lack of it.
Dr Rahul Chhabria, Consultant Cardiologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, says,
FIT also spoke to Dr Rashi Khare, Consultant Cardiologist at Max Super Speciality Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, who said that cases of heart diseases among young people in their 20s, are usually all men. “The decline in estrogen is also why hormone-replacement therapy, which involves supplementing women with hormones that are lost during the menopausal transition, is often used for post-menopausal women with heart diseases.”
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Underdiagnosis, Neglect & Lesser Known Symptoms
One of the reasons why heart disease remains undetected in women is that the symptoms and signs they experience differ from the more ‘classical’ (male) ones.
Men, for instance, experience sudden and extreme chest pain that radiates to the arm and neck. But for women, these symptoms may not be so evident. In fact, it’s common for women to not even realize that they’ve suffered a mild heart attack or two in the past, until they finally visit a doctor when the condition has worsened. They either do not have any symptoms, or just some mild pains or discomfort in the chest, neck, jaw, throat or lower back. Heartburn, nausea, fatigue or vomiting are some other ‘unconventional’ symptoms, again, mostly experienced by women. Dr Rahul Chhabria says,
These ‘atypical’ symptoms could be a reason why women are almost seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack. Such a trend is indicative of gender biases in medicine and research, where studies have historically been conducted for, on and by men.
While these non-classical symptoms contribute to late diagnosis in women, a deeper analysis reveals the societal set-up and norms to possibly be the biggest reason behind the underdiagnosis. Dr Rashi Khare explains, “Women have traditionally been trained to take care of the house and family, even at the expense of their own health.”
Another important fact that Dr Chhabria points out is the relative absence of women in cardiology. “In some families, women are hesitant in visiting a doctor in the first place. And when the doctor is a male, it may just aggravate their hesitance or shyness.”
All of this translates into a simple fact, he says. “This is why fewer women undergo medical procedures across the world, despite the incidence of the disease being the same in men and women.”
So when we talk about preventing heart disease in women — apart from ensuring they make healthier life choices like eating right, exercising, and abstaining from smoking or drinking — a little extra needs to be done. From unbiased research and creating a more conducive medical environment, to paying more attention to their health and symptoms at home; a concerted effort should be made — both in the sphere of the family as well as science.
(This story was auto-published from a syndicated feed. No part of the story has been edited by The Quint.)
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