Women Too Often Missing from Heart Disease Research

Women Too Often Missing from Heart Disease Research

Every 60 seconds, a woman dies from heart disease. In fact, it's the number one killer of women in the United States, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined.

With staggering statistics like these, it should be safe to assume that heart disease research, which sets the standard for prevention and treatment, would be equally representative of the sexes. However, according to the American Heart Association, women make up only 24% of all participants in heart-related clinical trials.

“It is mind boggling that women comprise 50% of the population, yet we are remarkably understudied,” says cardiologist Rachel Beck, MD, of Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.

And this invisibility in research can mean some serious consequences for women’s heart health.

The dangers of excluding women
It’s now well known that cardiovascular disease (CVD) affects men and women differently. They experience different symptoms—women are more likely to have less-obvious symptoms, such as indigestion, shortness of breath and back pain. Women are also usually affected later in life and have some different risk factors for the disease.

When these biological differences aren’t taken into account, in research or in the doctor’s office, it puts women at risk, says cardiologist Saritha Dodla, MD, of Medical City Alliance in Texas.

Dr. Beck agrees.

“What works for a man doesn’t always work for a woman,” she says. “[When they are excluded from research], women may receive therapy that is ineffective or harmful, or they may be withheld therapy altogether.”

On the other hand, says Dr. Dodla, gender-specific research can help doctors better understand how heart disease progresses in women, so they're better able to effectively diagnose and treat their female patients. More gender parity in research would also make it easier to educate female patients on their specific risk factors for the disease, and how to prevent it.

So why aren’t more women included in heart disease research?
The reasons are multifold.

Even though heart disease kills more women each year than men, it’s still considered a men’s health issue, which means that research efforts are continually skewed towards middle-aged males, according to both Beck and Dodla. It’s also thought that women volunteer for research trials in smaller numbers than men, and have less available time to participate.

In addition, because female hormone levels are believed to protect women from heart disease into middle age, it hasn’t been as big of a priority to include younger women in medical research. But this is dangerous, too.

“Young women aren’t universally protected,” says Beck. “It’s still possible for a 25-year-old woman to succumb to a heart attack.”

Taking charge of your heart health
In light of all this, what can you do to protect your heart? Begin by being your own health advocate, says Beck.

“Women are urged to seek screening, know their family history and take a proactive stance on their own health,” she says. That means educating yourself on the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease, and doing your best to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Also, talk to your primary care doctor about having regular cholesterol screenings and blood pressure testing, says Dodla. Then talk to them about what those results mean.

“In order to effectively treat a condition, it must be considered early by the patients and practitioner,” says Beck. “Change is happening, but it will take more time.”

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

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