CVD in Women
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the #1 killer of women both in Canada and the US. Average lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease in women is approximately 40%, and increases as the number of risk factors increases. Coronary artery disease is the main form of heart disease that affects both women and men. One in 5 women has been told by their physician that they have heart problems. More women than men die from heart failure and stroke.
The risk factors that lead to the development of heart disease are increasing and we can expect to see more heart disease develop in women over time. Most of these risk factors are the same as for the general population and include obesity, inactivity, poor dietary habits, metabolic syndrome and elevated cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension and smoking. However, additional factors are more prevalent among women than men, are often unrecognized, and have been associated with significantly increased risk of subsequent CVD. These include hypertension in pregnancy, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and autoimmune diseases. Aggressive management of risk factors can delay the development of heart disease, stroke and congestive heart failure.
Prior to menopause women are relatively protected from the development of heart disease. Hormonal protection delays heart disease by about ten years on average, although the presence of diabetes overrides this protection. Thus, women tend to be older and have more comorbidities than men when they develop heart disease. When women do develop heart disease, particularly at a young age, it tends to be more severe and have a worse prognosis. Women often have delays in diagnosis of heart disease and tend to have more diffuse or widespread disease. Their coronary arteries are smaller and women tend to do poorer with procedures such as angioplasty or bypass surgery.
Heart disease in women can be difficult to diagnose because the usual presenting symptoms are less often present or symptoms are atypical. A recent study of women presenting with heart attack showed that the most frequent preceding symptoms were unusual fatigue (70.7%), sleep disturbance (47.8%), and shortness of breath (42.1%). Only 29.7% reported chest discomfort, a hallmark symptom in men. The most frequent acute symptoms were shortness of breath (57.9%), weakness (54.8%), and fatigue (42.9%). Acute chest pain was absent in 43%.
Using common tests to diagnose heart disease in women pose further challenges. Treadmill stress testing, the usual test to diagnose coronary artery disease, can often be falsely abnormal in women. More accurate tests such as stress nuclear heart scanning or stress echocardiograms are necessary to exclude or diagnose heart disease in women. These tests tend to be less readily available and more costly and sometimes are inappropriately avoided, thus delaying the diagnosis of what are often atypical or unusual presentations of coronary artery disease.
Once coronary artery disease is diagnosed there continue to be problems with inadequate therapy to control symptoms as well as risk. These problems apply to all patients with heart disease and cardiac risk factors.