Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is on the rise among younger women, yet many of them are unaware of their risk until they actually suffer a heart attack, according to a Yale School of Public Health study published in the November issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC).
Only 53 percent of the young heart attack survivors studied thought they were at risk prior to the event. Even fewer (49 percent) had ever discussed their cardiac risks or how to reduce them with their doctor before the heart attack–issues that were particularly pronounced in women, the researchers reported.
The researchers studied 3,501 heart attack patients ages 18 to 55 enrolled in the VIRGO (Variation in Recovery: Role of Gender on Outcomes of Young AMI Patients) study in U.S. and Spanish hospitals between August, 2008 and January, 2012. The study included a 2:1 ratio of women to men.
A “Rising Epidemic” of Heart Disease in Younger Women
Every year, CVD (also known as heart disease) kills more American women than men. While many women assume that they are too young to worry about a heart attack or other cardiac events, here’s what they need to know: Annually, CVD claims the lives of more than 15,000 U.S. women under age 56.
Indeed, younger women are the only age group whose death rates of CVD are increasing, an accompanying editorial in JACC points out. To find out why, authors of the study looked at gender differences in cardiac risk factors, patients’ perceptions of their heart attack risk prior to the event, and if they’d discussed their risks and how to modify them with their medical provider prior to the event.
The investigators found that the young men and women who suffered heart attacks had similar risk factors. Almost all of the women (97 percent) and men (99 percent) had at least one of these five potentially modifiable heart attack threats: diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, or smoking. Sixty-five percent of the women and 63 percent of the men had three or more of these risks.
Women Less Likely to Be Informed About Their Heart Attack Risks
Despite having a similar or greater level of CVD risk, women were 11 percent less likely to have been told by their doctors of their danger, and were 16 percent less likely to have been counseled on risk factor modification (such as lifestyle changes) before their heart attack than the male patients studied.
An accompanying editorial in the same issue of JACC stated, “these new results suggest that the rising epidemic of CVD in younger women may be attributable in part to a lack of risk assessment and preventive therapy.” The editorial’s authors add that earlier research reports that “women are less likely to receive all effective guideline-indicated cardiovascular therapy. Closing this guideline gap could potentially eliminate the adverse [CVD] mortality persistently experienced by women.”
“Young women cannot afford to continually be less informed than men about their risk for [cardiovascular] disease,” said lead study author Erica Leifheit-Limson, PhD. “We need to improve how we give information about [cardiovascular] disease to younger patients. It should be a priority for health care providers to address basic risk factors and prevention with patients at risk.
With the Right Knowledge and Care, Many Heart Attacks and Strokes Are Preventable
Other recent research also highlights an alarming lack of awareness among women that CVD is their leading health threat. For example, as we recently reported, 90 percent of women aren’t aware of female-specific risks for stroke, which also kills more women each year than men. Rates of stroke have soared by about 44 percent in those under age 55, according to a 2012 study.
Not only is it crucial for women to know their risk for heart attack and stroke, but they also need to take action to reduce it. CVD typically develops silently, with no obvious warning signs until a heart attack or stroke occurs. That’s why it’s important for women to talk to their medical provider about their risks and learn how to reduce them.
Many heart attacks and strokes can be prevented with the right medical care and risk factor modification, such as losing weight, exercising more, improving diet, and working together with practitioners to get conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure under control.
If you have normal cholesterol levels, you may assume that you are not at risk. However, that’s not always true. About 50 percent of heart attacks and strokes occur in people with normal cholesterol levels. For a more complete picture of your risk, talk to your doctor about inflammation testing, in which simple blood and urine tests are used to help evaluate your risk.