Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. However, only in recent decades has attention been given to the differences in how the disease (and heart attacks, in particular) present in women compared to men.
Even though advocates for women’s health have put a lot of effort into educating women so that they recognize the symptoms of a heart attack, a number of new studies have found that women still face delays in getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment. This, of course, leads to worse (and too often fatal) outcomes than for men. This isn’t just an American problem. This is a global problem for women.
One professor who has studied heart disease extensively says, “Women tend to go to the hospital later than men after the onset of symptoms. And physicians are not admitting women to the hospital at the same rates as men.” That means that even when women suspect they may be having a heart attack, their doctors don’t always take the same steps to diagnose them as they would a man. He says, “We know that the sooner someone is treated, the greater their chances of recovery and survival.”
Women often suffer different symptoms than men
Part of the disparity results from the fact that, as we noted, women can experience very different symptoms than men generally do when suffering a heart attack. While men are more likely to have chest pain, for women, the pain and other symptoms are often not that localized. In fact, they may not suffer chest pain at all – at least initially.
They may have pain in their abdomen, jaw or upper back, for example. Often, they experience nausea and vomiting. It’s easy to chalk things up to a strained muscle or a case of the flu. It’s easy to see why women may not associate any of those things with their heart – particularly if they don’t have a diagnosed heart condition. Of course, heart disease in women often goes undiagnosed and treated until it’s too late.
Even when women experience more “traditional” symptoms like shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat, doctors too often write it off as anxiety or a panic attack without performing basic tests that would indicate a more serious heart event that needs immediate treatment.
Women are suffering heart attacks at a younger age
Here’s another disturbing piece of information reported in recent studies: Heart attacks among younger women are increasing at a greater rate than in younger men – particularly for women in their mid-30s to mid-50s. The professor called the growing number heart attacks in younger women “alarming.” He notes risk factors like “premature menopause, endometriosis and hypertension disorders during pregnancy.”
Further evidence that women are at greater risk of dying from a heart attack due to gender stereotypes can be found in studies that looked at the gender the treating physician. One study here in the U.S. found that the fatality rate for women treated by female physicians was less than half that for those treated by male doctors.
What women (and men) should know about MINOCA
Women are more likely than men to suffer a specific type of heart attack: myocardial infarction with non-obstructive coronary arteries (MINOCA). It’s caused by lack of blood flow to the heart that can occur even when there’s no serious arterial blockage (as there is prior to many heart attacks).
That means even if diagnostic testing called angiography is done to look for plaque buildup, if there is none, a heart attack may go undiagnosed. That doesn’t mean it’s undiagnosable. It can be diagnosed by using more than one type of imaging.
Is a failure to diagnose a case of malpractice?
Losing a loved one to a heart attack that went undiagnosed when they sought medical care can be a devastating thing for families. If that lack of diagnosis was based on gendered stereotypes or just plain failure to keep up with the latest research and advancements, it can be particularly infuriating.
Every failure to diagnose or misdiagnosis isn’t a case of medical malpractice. However, if you believe a doctor failed to take the necessary steps that would have accurately diagnosed your loved one and that this correct diagnosis and subsequent treatment would have led to a different outcome, it’s wise to seek legal guidance.