3 Breakthroughs in Women’s Heart Health

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Heart disease and stroke kill more women than men. Here, how new medical breakthroughs are helping to fight heart disease in the fairer sex.

Did you know that heart disease and stroke kill more women than men and that women are seven times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer?

Gals face more cardiovascular risk factors than men, yet we aren’t diagnosed or treated at the same rate. Because our bodies are different, the disease often develops differently, yet there’s less research on female-centric signs and symptoms. Plus women tend to delay seeing a doc for help.

But new breakthroughs are helping to fight heart disease in the fairer sex. Check out three.
1. Many women have no idea they have cardiovascular disease until they’re hit with a heart attack. Since the disease doesn’t necessarily follow a typical male pattern (women, for instance, are more likely to have it in the tinier arteries of the heart), screening a woman with a man’s risk factors, signs and tests may not reveal a problem. A cardiologist at Kentucky’s University of Louisville is experimenting with a simple blood test that’s almost like peering into arteries to see if they’re clogged. The test measures oxidized phospholipids (OxPL), which are major components in the plaques that line artery walls as cardiovascular disease develops. If high amounts of OxPL in the bloodstream predict heart attacks in the women he is following, we’ll have a new tool for identifying women at high risk—before a cardiac emergency. OxPL is present in both genders so this discovery may benefit the fellas, too.

2. Because women were traditionally left out of cardiovascular research trials, we don’t always know if a treatment that helps men will work as effectively for women. Statin medications are well established for lowering cholesterol and preventing cardiovascular disease in men. But a lack of evidence meant the benefits were less certain in women. Now, a massive University of Sydney study of 174,000 female patients around the world has clearly demonstrated that women gain just as much from taking statin drugs.

3. Heart attacks in women are less likely to be identified compared to men. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have discovered—and potentially solved—one of the reasons why. A standard blood test after a suspected heart attack looks for a protein called troponin that’s released from a heart muscle when it’s damaged. But research shows that women having heart attacks release lower levels of troponin than men. Thus this routine test is more likely to be negative. The team has found that a new, more sensitive troponin test detected twice as many heart attacks in women, potentially saving these ladies’ lives before the next big one.

Next: Symptoms of heart attack

How it feels if you’re female
We’re taught that crushing chest pain and a numb left arm are classic heart attack signs. Often, though, women’s symptoms are less obvious than men’s. An elephant sitting on your chest is still the most common sign for both men and women. But it’s important for ladies to know that other symptoms like indigestion, fatigue, shortness of breath or back pain—even without chest pain—can also mean you’re having a heart attack and that women are more likely than men to feel them.

What men can expect
Here’s a case in which a breakthrough that could benefit men wouldn’t be possible without women. Pharmaceutical giant Novartis has developed a heart-failure medication, serelaxin, that increases dilation of blood vessels and improves blood flow. It’s based on a hormone called relaxin that women produce during pregnancy to adapt to carrying a baby. The drug has been approved in Russia but is still undergoing trials in the U.S.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue with the headline, “Breakthroughs in Women’s Heart Health,” p. 46-47.