Heart disease is the leading killer of women in America, but only half of women are aware of that. According to a 2020 study released by the American Heart Association, awareness about women’s heart disease has been on a steep decline.
The Women’s Heart Alliance — led by Barbra Streisand, Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, Dr. Holly Andersen, and a national board of leading cardiologists — has been working hard to raise public knowledge of the unique heart attack symptoms experienced by women, and is dedicated to reducing heart-related illness and death among women.
Our advocacy has helped get the federal government to increase research funding for the study of how heart disease impacts women, require researchers to show findings by gender, include female mice in cardiovascular research, and involve more women in clinical trials.
In part because of these changes, we’ve seen the number of women dying from heart-related illnesses reduced from 1 in 3 to 1 in 4. While this is important progress, it’s not enough.
An urgent concern
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the urgency of improving heart healthcare for women. The virus takes a tremendous toll on cardiovascular health, causing heart damage in many patients who didn’t have pre-existing heart conditions. There is growing evidence that those who have had COVID-19 can sustain serious heart damage months after being infected. Patients that experienced serious cases requiring hospitalization should consider having their heart checked.
The fight for gender equity is far from over. With the help of the public, federal and local government, and medical communities, here are some things we can do to ensure women receive the same quality of care and treatment for their hearts as men do:
- Improve heart health awareness in the community: By raising awareness of the specific symptoms of heart disease in women, we can ensure they receive proper care and treatment in a timely manner. This alone will save lives. Women perceive breast cancer as their greatest health risk but, in fact, heart disease is the greatest risk to women’s health. Increasing heart health knowledge is especially important among women of color and those younger than 55. Polls show that even though heart disease mortality is on the rise, awareness among these groups is decreasing.
- Educate the medical community on women’s heart health: Studies have shown that female patients are more likely to survive a heart attack when they are treated by a female doctor rather than a male doctor. This finding suggests gender bias or an education gap might be preventing male doctors from providing women with the care and treatment they need. Medical schools must incorporate into their curriculums courses focused on women’s heart disease to prevent disparate care based on gender.
- Fund cardiovascular research that includes women: Just as important as educating the public and doctors is increasing funding for research specific to women’s cardiovascular disease. Many the disparities in how men and women are diagnosed and treated for heart disease stems from their unequal representation in research studies and clinical trials. The National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can correct these inequities by improving gender equity requirements in future research.
We’ve come far in our efforts toward gender equity in cardiovascular care and research, but we’ve still got a long way to go. As long as heart disease remains the leading killer of women, we’ll keep fighting.To get regular updates on how to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle and reduce your risk of heart-related illnesses, sign up for our newsletter at womensheartalliance.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.