With all the attention surrounding important new guidelines that will greatly expand the number of Americans who could benefit from taking anti-cholesterol medication, it’s important to note that far too many women aren’t learning early enough about their risks for heart disease in the first place.
Traditionally, the face of heart disease has been male, despite the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of U.S. women, causing one in four women’s deaths and taking more lives than every form of cancer combined.
Moreover, the medical community’s knowledge of women’s heart disease is still 50 years behind what we know about men’s heart disease. That’s because for decades women were wrongfully and routinely excluded from clinical studies focusing on heart disease, and yet there are major distinctions in how the disease manifests among genders.
For American women, heart disease is not only far too prevalent — it is preventable. Eighty percent of women aged 40 to 60 have one or more heart disease risks that can be controlled or reduced, from smoking to excessive salt intake, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, high stress levels, uncontrolled diabetes, high levels of “bad” cholesterol and low levels of “good” cholesterol.
Through relatively simply lifestyle modifications, which are often prompted by cardiovascular screenings, women can reduce their risk of heart disease by up to 82 percent of the time, according to Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation.
Unfortunately, women are far less likely than men to be tested or treated for heart disease in a timely manner. This is where we run into barriers that must be recognized and removed.
Throughout the U.S., women are having a hard time finding primary care doctors, who pro-actively provide the full range of preventive care and health services. Furthermore, the Association of American Medical Colleges projects that there will be a nationwide shortage of 91,500 primary care doctors by year 2020. Increasingly, this problem affects not only low-income women but middle-class women as well.
According to researchers at Montefiore Medical Center, 32 percent to 56 percent of women, depending on how old they are, rely on an annual visit to their OB/GYN for their preventive health needs. But a study conducted by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography Women and Interventions Program found that only 20 percent of women report that their OB/GYN actually meets all of their health care needs. In fact, only 33 percent recall having even discussed heart disease with their OB/GYN.
The answer is obvious but overlooked. Women need to start getting screened where they are or can easily go, such as at OB/GYN visits, community health centers and minute clinics, among other places. And let’s put the charge on providers to offer this preventive screening, rather than on patients to ask the “right questions.”
By screening patients for the initial signs and risks of heart disease, OB/GYNs and other medical professionals can help put women at high risk on the path to making lifestyle changes and/or seeking specialist care. Quite simply, actions that could save women’s lives. Fortunately, preventive screenings are inexpensive, quick and effective, and can offer immediate results.
Through screening women where they are and empowering them with the tools they need to take care of their hearts — with lifestyle counseling, medication and/or referrals to cardiologists — we can combat this deadly disease. Since so many women rely on their annual OB/GYN exam, a community health center, or a minute clinic for basic primary care, we need providers to be proactive about heart screenings. Too many women might lack the knowledge and motivation to ask for themselves.
Together, we can knock down the barriers that hinder so many of us from getting the care we need. If we don’t do it, no one else will.