Research Confirms that Heart Disease’s Presentation and Treatment Varies by Sex

Research released as National Women’s Heart Health Month begins shows that heart disease manifests differently in women than in men and requires independent study and treatment, confirming a report on women’s health in the current issue of Ms magazine. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s study, “Women’s Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation” (or WISE), asserts that rather than blocking off entire arteries, cholesterol plaque spreads more evenly in women’s arteries, which is equally dangerous and less successfully diagnosed by doctors trained to look for symptoms more frequently seen in men.

Speaking to Ms., Dr. Andra Blomkalns, of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, stated, “[t]he key factor is that women often present differently” than men. Blomkalns notes that rather than becoming nauseous, sweating and having pain in the chest and arms as men typically do, women with heart problems often suffer from what seem to be gastrointestinal problems or have pain in their face or back. Even when a successful diagnosis is made, women often receive insufficient or inappropriate treatment. C. Noel Bairey Merz, chair of the WISE study said, “Éthe basis of our standard methods of diagnosis and treatment are the result of research conducted on men.” As reported in Ms., standard prevention, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, such as bypass surgery, digitalis, aspirin, and the exercise treadmill test, are more successful in treating men than women.

Recognition that both diagnosis and treatment needs to be considered in light of the patient’s sex has the potential to save many women’s lives. It is thought that nearly 3 million American women may suffer from heart problems, and heart disease is the number one killer of women. Speaking of the research, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s George Sopko told the Washington Post, “This is a big deal. This is changing our thinking about heart disease in many women.”

Ms. magazine’s Winter 2006 issue features the story, “The Beat of a Different Heart,” on newsstands nationwide.

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Ms. Magazine Winter 2006, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute press release 1/31/06; Washington Post 2/1/06

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