In the United States, one woman dies every 80 seconds from cardiovascular disease. That’s more than all forms of cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes combined, yet women are under-studied, under-diagnosed and under-treated.
“We have a lot of catch up that we're doing with research on heart disease and how it afflicts women differently than men,” says Dr. Scott Sharkey, with the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.
Dr. Sharkey says there’s good reason for that. In the 1950's women were given Thalidomide to treat nausea during pregnancy. It caused severe birth defects. As a result, the FDA restricted medical research on women.
“So, in the cardiology world, we studied men and just made the assumption that women were exactly the same except a little smaller and everything that everything that we found in men would translate to women with respect to heart disease,” he says.
“We have learned that the biology of women's hearts is quite different than men's and we have discovered a lot of heart conditions that are more or less unique to women,” he continues.
Conditions like spontaneous coronary artery dissection or SCAD, where the inner lining of the artery will tear, cause a blockage and lead to heart attack, much in the same way a cholesterol plug would. It often happens to women after childbirth. But treatment? That is much different. "You cannot assume that a drug or a dose of a drug, just because it works in a male, is going to be the same in a female. We're learning that we kind of have to do the research all over again based on the gender of the patient,” Dr. Sharkey says.
Minneapolis Heart Institute foundation is dedicated to doing that research, but when it comes to being under-diagnosed, some of that is cultural. Women are more likely to shrug off their symptoms as stress and many of us use our OBGYN as our primary doctor.
“It is interesting to think maybe the doctor you're going to doesn't know anything about your heart condition, and just in light of that fact, not pick up on the fact that you have a heart problem,” says Dr. Sharkey.
But that’s changing.
"There is an effort now that cardiologists are pairing with OBGYN physicians to communicate those things that the OBGYN might need to look out for,” he says.
More steps forward. And women, we can help be part of the solution. Ask questions, demand answers, it's a matter of life or death.
Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation has created a women's cardiovascular science center. The goal is to research and find treatments for heart conditions that affect women more commonly than men.