Women's Heart Program
Often incorrectly called "a man’s disease," heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease, or cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes heart attack and stroke, claims the lives of 504,000 women in the United States every year—more than the next 16 causes of death combined, including breast cancer.
Heart attacks alone kill almost 250,000 women each year, and women under age 50 who have had heart attacks are twice as likely to die from them as men in the same age group. Experts believe that one of the major reasons women are less likely to recover from heart attacks is because until recently, treatment and diagnosis of CVD in women was based on what physicians knew about men. As a result, women were diagnosed later than men, limiting their treatment options.
Now armed with specific information about women’s CVD, health professionals are educating women at risk with preventive information and various treatments. By tailoring their approach to women’s needs, they hope to lower women’s CVD-related death rates.
What is Coronary Heart Disease?
Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque builds up along artery walls (a process called atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries”), reducing the flow of blood that nourishes the heart muscle. Inside the blood vessels, a cap forms an irregular surface over the fatty plaque. If the plaque is unstable, it bursts through the cap. The body responds as it would to any other injury: it forms blood clots, which can block blood flow and cause chest pain (known as angina) or a heart attack (also called a myocardial infarction, or MI).
A Common Misconception
Although CVD is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, many women and their physicians still believe that breast cancer causes the most deaths. Although about 36 percent of American women will die of heart disease, only 4 percent know it’s the leading cause of death for women, according to a recent survey. In contrast, 40 percent of women fear dying of breast cancer, even though only 4 percent actually will die of the disease, according to data from The National Center for Health Statistics.
Statistics Don’t Lie
- One in 10 American women between the ages of 45 to 64 has some form of heart disease.
- One in 4 women in the United States over age 65 has some form of heart disease.
- A higher percentage of women than men age 50 and older have total blood cholesterol levels of 200 mg/dL or higher, a leading cause of heart disease.
- Women are more likely than men to die of heart attacks within a few weeks after the attack, in part because women have heart attacks later in life than men do.
- Within 1 year after a heart attack, 38 percent of women will die (compared with 25 percent of men).
- Within 6 years after a heart attack, 35 percent of women will have another one (compared with 18 percent of men), and 46 percent of women will experience heart failure (versus 22 percent of men).
The Racial Factor
African-American women are at higher risk for dying of cardiovascular disease (CVD) than women in any other racial group, according to a 200-page study produced by West Virginia University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). African-American women die of CVD at an alarming rate, with 553 deaths per 100,000 women per year versus 388 deaths per 100,000 white women per year. Overall, CVD causes 401 deaths per 100,000 women of all backgrounds over age 35 each year.
Other studies show that Mexican-American women are hospitalized more often for heart attacks than non-Hispanic white women.
Researchers from the CDC believe that a combination of genetics, smoking habits, ethnic diets (which may be high in saturated fat), and other social or cultural traditions could contribute to a higher number of CVD-related deaths in African-American and Mexican-American women.
Researchers also point to social isolation and limited mobility as factors that could play a role in CVD-related deaths in certain high-risk groups of women.