Why Is Heart Disease Treated Like a Men's Disease?

by Lauren Holter

Heart disease is the number one killer of women, both in the U.S. and worldwide, but it's still treated as a men's disease. Men and women have different anatomy (hello, ovaries), so why are the symptoms and diagnoses of the most prevalent disease based off of a man's body? Gender discrimination in the treatment of cardiovascular disease puts women's lives at risk, as doctors are often trained to look for male symptoms of heart attacks and treat women's bodies like men's.

One in three women in the world die of heart disease, meaning it kills more women than all cancers combined, according to the American Heart Association. The classic symptoms of a heart attack, namely pressure in the chest and pain in the arm, refer to common symptoms in men and they don't necessarily happen to women experiencing an episode. In fact, about 40 percent of women don't experience chest pain when having a heart attack. "Children are not small adults, that’s why we have pediatricians. Women are not men with ovaries," said Dr. Jennifer Ashton, an ABC News medical contributor, during a panel at the Women in the World Summit (WITW) in New York Thursday. On the American Heart Association's website, Dr. Nieca explains some of the differences, writing:

Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure. Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.
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Although heart attacks are viewed largely as a male problem, certain demographics of women see more deaths from heart disease than men. More women than men die of heart disease in low and middle-income nations and young women everywhere who have a heart attack have a higher mortality rate than men of the same age, according to the World Heart Federation. At the WITW Summit, Barbra Streisand, an advocate for raised awareness of heart disease in women, said:

For the last 50 years, most of the research has been done on men. We have different plumbing, right? Why aren’t we valued enough? Why do so many physicians not know about gender disparities?

According to the National Emergency Medicine Association's website, "much of heart disease research has been done on men, so the composite picture of heart disease risk known as the Framingham score applies largely to them," referring to the algorithm used to judge the cardiovascular risk of a person. The underlying problem, aside from assuming that men and women's bodies are identical, is that heart disease isn't seen as a large threat to women's health. However, one in three American women die of heart disease, while one in 32 die of breast cancer, which gets much more attention.

Streisand believes the sexualization of breast cancer has played a role in the success of the nation's breast cancer awareness campaigns. "Men don’t want you to lose your breasts; women don’t want to lose their breasts," Streisand said at WITW. "The heart is hidden."

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