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New research has found that young women at risk for heart disease are less likely than men to be informed of their risk before having a heart attack. As a result, they’re more likely than men of a similar age to die of a heart attack.
For the research, which was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, scientists studied 3,501 patients aged 18 to 55 who had experienced a heart attack.
Nearly all of the patients had a least one of the five potentially modifiable risk factors for heart disease — diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, obesity, and smoking — and almost two-thirds had three or more risk factors.
While half of the study participants said they considered themselves at-risk or were told they were at risk of heart disease prior to their heart attack, women were 11 percent less likely than men to say they were told they were at risk. They were also 16 percent less likely to report having a doctor talk to them about heart disease and ways to reduce their risk of developing it.
Lead study author Erica Leifheit-Limson, PhD, an associate research scientist in epidemiology at Yale University, tells Yahoo Health that age could play a role in the discrepancy. “Heart disease is often considered a disease of older age, particularly for women,” she says. “Younger patients may not even realize that a heart attack is a possibility for them, but it’s the leading cause of death for this age group.”
And that’s not just the younger age group.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.
Deborah Kwon, MD, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Women’s Cardiovascular Center, tells Yahoo Health that heart disease is often incorrectly thought of as a male problem, which may lead women to think they’re experiencing symptoms of something other than heart disease.
Women also tend to have more atypical symptoms of heart disease than men, like frequent nausea, jaw pain, or back pain, she says, which may be why it’s more difficult for some primary care physicians to identify female patients with heart disease.
And, even though heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, women tend to be more concerned about cancer and lowering their risk of that disease, Nicole Weinberg, MD, a cardiologist at California’s Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells Yahoo Health. “They’re not at all concerned about their heart disease risk — but they should be,” she says.
Early detection is important, Kwon says, because it can prevent a heart attack or stroke. “It’s of utmost importance that doctors talk to patients about how to modify those factors such as cholesterol, smoking, obesity, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly,” she says. “All of these things are essential.”
But if your doctor doesn’t talk about your risk, Leifheit-Limson says you should. “There’s no reason for you to wait to bring it up,” she says. “The sooner you start to understand your risk and take action, the better.”
Leifheit-Limson also stresses that women should be aware that heart disease can happen to them: “Don’t assume that you’re too young for a heart attack, especially if you have multiple risk factors and family history of one.”
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