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  health > women > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Raising awareness of heart disease in women

May 10, 1999
Web posted at: 8:31 AM EDT (1231 GMT)

In this story:

Are women doctors better for women?

Aging population likely to increase awareness


  • Women with heart disease tend to be older and to have more diabetes and hypertension than their male counterparts.
  • Women may only complain of shortness of breath.
  • When women do have pain, it more typically occurs in the abdomen (so they think it is just stomach problems), back, jaw or throat.
  • Chronic fatigue, dizziness and swelling of the ankles or lower legs are other common symptoms -- none of which is typically associated with heart disease in men.
  • (WebMD) -- While most people know that heart disease is the number-one killer of men in the United States, many don't realize that this statistic also holds true for women. Even so, many women live in fear of breast cancer when they are much more likely to die of a heart attack. According to the experts, lack of knowledge -- among patients and physicians alike -- is largely to blame, although it is improving.

    In a Gallup survey conducted by the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA) in 1995, four-out-of-five women did not know that heart disease is their primary killer. Even more surprising was that almost one-third of primary physicians were uninformed of this fact. Dr. Debra R. Judelson, past AMWA president and medical director of the Women's Heart Institute in Southern California, explains: "Women aren't aware because doctors aren't aware. When a woman complains of symptoms, she's told, 'Oh, don't worry about it -- just get your pap smear and mammogram,' and that's it. Doctors need to treat patients' symptoms with credibility."

    Are women doctors better for women?

    Dr. Judith Lorber, professor emeritus of sociology at City University of New York and author of "Gender and the Social Construction of Illness," has studied gender differences in medical practice. While she found that female doctors, on average, only spend about three minutes more than male doctors with their female patients, "the time they do spend (tends to be) of higher quality because it involves more communicating," says Lorber. While studies of physician practices have shown that women don't get treated as aggressively as men when it comes to heart disease, they've also shown that female doctors tend to order more tests for women than male doctors. However, whether women see female or male doctors, Lober recommends women be more assertive and ask lots of questions.

    Women doctors may spend more time learning about heart disease in women because they have a stronger personal interest, Judelson theorizes. "But we don't have evidence yet that women doctors treat women cardiac patients better. I'm told that women doctors tend to pay more attention to women's cardiac concerns, and that patients prefer to see a woman doctor because they feel their concerns are dealt with more appropriately. Yet I know there are many fine male physicians doing the same excellent job, once they are trained and aware." Judelson stresses that women should seek out doctors who have additional training on women's health issues, rather than simply choosing a female over a male doctor.

    Aging population likely to increase awareness

    Dr. Elsye Foster, cardiologist at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center and chairperson of the board of directors, San Francisco chapter of the American Heart Association, says that part of the awareness problem is that heart disease occurs mostly when a woman is older. "More middle-aged women know of someone who's had breast cancer than a heart attack. So when women experience symptoms, they're more likely to dismiss them," she says. Yet heart disease claims more than 500,000 women's lives yearly -- almost 12 times the number of women who die of breast cancer. "As the population ages and older people are more productive, the awareness is changing," says Foster, who's optimistic about physicians coming around. "In the past, doctors didn't pay as much attention as they should, but this is changing for the better," she says.

    Judelson agrees. "The public, especially menopausal women, are much more aware, but this needs to transfer into better health habits -- low-fat diets rich in fruits and vegetables, daily exercise, not smoking, optimal weight and stress reduction," she says. She also recommends that women be aware of their personal risk factors, have any symptoms properly evaluated and, if needed, get prompt treatment.

    Copyright 1999 by WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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