Young Women Are at a Higher Risk of Heart Attack Than Ever Before, Says New Study
Women are also not getting the heart-related care that they should.
A new study published in the medical journal Circulation found that heart attacks have increased significantly among younger women-a whopping 48 percent to be exact. The research looked at women between ages 35 and 54 (which cardiologists consider "young") and concluded that this age group makes up a third of all the heart attacks that take place in the U.S.
The (Not-So-Great) Numbers
Researchers drew their data from the medical records of nearly 30,000 people between the ages of 35 and 74 who reported heart attacks between 1995 and 2014. "We looked at heart attacks that occurred amongst young patients, both male and female ... and what we found was an increase in heart attack incidents in young women," says Melissa Caughey, Ph.D., senior author of the study and a research instructor in the division of cardiology at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.
Between 1995 and 1999, just 21 percent of hospitalized female heart attack patients were "young." But between 2010 and 2014, that number rose to 31 percent-a 48 percent increase. "That's quite a dramatic increase," says Caughey. (Related: New Fitbit Data Finds That Users In the U.S. Have the Highest Heart Rates)
Why Are Young Women Having More Heart Attacks?
The study also found that younger women who had heart attacks were more likely than men of the same age to have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, and stroke-all factors that increase your risk for a heart attack. These risk factors, however, may all be a result of one other common condition: Obesity.
"I think the biggest contributor is probably the obesity epidemic," says Caughey. "Obesity is much more prevalent in women than men and is a risk factor for a plethora of illnesses, one of them being heart disease. Other than that, living a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise could also be risk factors."
While there is no data-backed explanation (yet) for why this happens, the American Heart Association (AHA) believes that not enough women take their heart health seriously and often chalk up the symptoms to acid reflux, the flu, or normal aging. While chest pain is the most common symptom of heart attack in men, women can experience much subtler symptoms like new or dramatic fatigue, shortness of breath, or sweating and unexplained pain in the neck, back, or jaw-all signs that can appear days before someone might need to go to the hospital, according to AHA. (Related: This Woman Thought She Had Anxiety, but It Was Actually a Rare Heart Defect)
Women's risk factors for heart attack are also quite different from men's. While obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and cholesterol are some well-known universal factors, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, high blood pressure during pregnancy, and endometriosis are all female-specific conditions that significantly raise your risk of heart attack. Endometriosis, specifically, increases your risk of developing heart disease by 400 percent (!) in women under the age of 40, according to recent research. These increased risk factors mean it's even more crucial to understand women's heart health and get them the proper care.
The Heart-Care Gap
The study made another surprising-yet equally important-observation. "What's most surprising about these findings is that they're in contrast to national trends, which show that heart attacks, in general, are on the decline," Caughey continued. Why is that? The study showed that women aren't receiving the same heart attack care that men do, especially when it comes to receiving the necessary pharmaceutical treatment.
Compared to men, "young women had a lower probability of receiving lipid-lowering therapies, nonaspirin antiplatelets, and beta blockers," the study noted. Women also don't participate in as many clinical trials for drugs or preventative treatment options as men and were less likely to undergo invasive heart surgery. (Did you know that women are more likely to survive a heart attack if their doctor is female?)
So even though women accounted for half the heart-attack related deaths in the 20-year study, the proportion is strikingly higher than their representation in the clinical trials that are used to support today's heart-health guidelines.
What all this means is that, right now, there isn't enough research or data out there on women's heart health to help better diagnose women or provide preventative care. "Without this evidence, we cannot fully understand and address the implications of potential sex-specific responses to cardiovascular therapies and improve cardiovascular outcomes in women," the study concluded.
"All we can hope is that these findings bring more awareness," says Caughey.