Many Women (and Docs) Are in the Dark on No. 1 Killer ― Heart Disease

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Can you name the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.? Nearly half of women can't, a new study finds — and that's a problem, researchers say.

The answer is heart disease. But 45 percent of women in the new study were unaware that this condition is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.

About 400,000 women in the U.S. died from heart disease in 2016 — a number that's higher than deaths in women from all types of cancer combined, according to the study, published today (June 22) in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. [Heart of the Matter: 7 Things to Know About Your Ticker]

Uncertainty surrounding heart disease in women also extends to doctors, the researchers said. Only 22 percent of primary-care physicians in the study said they felt well-prepared to assess heart disease risk in their female patients.

"Increasing awareness of cardiovascular disease in women has stalled with no major progress in almost 10 years, and little progress has been made in the last decade in increasing physician awareness or use of evidence-based guidelines to care for female patients," the lead study author, Dr. C Noel Bairey Merz, a cardiologist and the director of the Barbra Streisand Women's Heart Center at The Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, said in a statement.

In the study, the researchers interviewed more than 1,000 women, ages 25 to 60, as well as 200 primary- care physicians and 100 cardiologists, about their attitudes, knowledge and beliefs surrounding heart disease.

The researchers found that awareness that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women was lower in women with lower education levels and incomes, as well as in ethnic minorities.

Nearly three-quarters of the women in the study (71 percent) said that they "almost never" raised the issue of heart health with their doctor, the study found, and 49 percent said that they assumed their doctor would mention heart health if there was an issue.

But only 39 percent of the primary physicians surveyed said that they considered heart disease a top health concern for women. Rather, doctors were more likely to rate weight and breast cancer as more- pressing health problems. Just 7 percent of doctors reported that they discussed heart disease with their patients during every visit.

Even among cardiologists, less than half reported that they felt well-prepared to assess a women's risk of heart disease, the researchers found. Importantly, there are some differences between men's and women's hearts, meaning that different approaches are needed to treat the disease in men and women.

And though the majority of women in the study reported having a routine physical or wellness exam in the past year, only 40 percent said their exam had included a heart health assessment. About three-quarters of the women had at least one risk factor for heart disease, but only 16 percent said that they were told they were at risk by their doctors. [Where is Heart Disease Risk the Highest and Lowest? (Maps)]

On a positive note, among the women who did have heart health assessments, 76 percent said their doctors discussed the results with them, and 96 percent said they understood the results from these discussions.

The study also uncovered stigmas surrounding heart disease for women.

For example, the researchers found that 26 percent of women said they find heart disease embarrassing, because they assumed their risk was solely linked to their weight. They felt that their heart disease was a signal to others that they are not eating right or exercising. In fact, 45 percent of women surveyed said they had canceled or postponed a doctor's appointment until they could lose a few pounds. But there are many other risk factors, including family history, high blood pressure, irregular menstrual periods and certain pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia.

"These findings suggest a need to destigmatize cardiovascular disease for women," Bairey Merz said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.