The legend of the hard-hearted woman has gone to our heads, and that’s probably bad for everyone’s health. Women with heart disease discount the severity of their problem compared to men with the exact same cardiac symptoms and conditions, new research shows.
Among surveys given to 490 patients treated for a heart attack or severe chest pain at the University of Michigan between 1999 and 2002, 348 men and 142 women ranked the seriousness of their disease the same.
But in fact, the women had much worse disease, took more medicines and suffered more serious symptoms and limitations on their daily lives. These results, published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Medicine, were no surprise to study co-author Kim Eagle, clinical director of the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center.
Learn How Heart Attacks Strike
"My female patients with heart disease are often more concerned about their spouses, children, and grandchildren, than they are about their own health," Eagle told LiveScience.
Women should be vigilant in seeking cardiac care, no matter the inconvenience, she said, and no matter if they feel a stronger desire to care for others than for themselves.
"It’s hard to care for others if your own heart has been compromised," she said. It comes down to a problem of perception in which women somehow fail to see how severe their cardiac disease is. And that can lead to them failing to seek medical attention, treatment or rehabilitation.
Other research has shown that women treated for a heart attack tend to resume housework sooner than men with the same condition after they return home.
"Women must come to grips with the heart truth," Eagle said. "Heart disease kills way more women than any other disease."
By the numbers
Heart disease kills six times as many women each year as breast cancer, and 8 million American women currently are living with heart disease, according to the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.
Recovery comes hard for women too—they are almost twice as likely as men to die after bypass surgery. Women tend to get less treatment for heart disease and comprise only a quarter of the participants in heart-related research studies.
And while 25 percent of men will die within a year of a first heart attack, that figure rises to 38 percent among women. Eagle’s co-author Steven Erickson, of the University of Michigan’s College of Pharmacy, said there is a message for men in all this when it comes to women’s efforts to eat better, exercise daily and remember to take their medication after a coronary event. "Women need the support of significant others," he said.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.