Cardiovascular disease has long been a leading cause of death in Canada, and for a long time, it was predominantly associated with older men. In the 1970s, with research and awareness on the rise, deaths due to cardiovascular disease began to decline for the total population. However, for women, the number of annual cardiovascular deaths began a gradual increase. Today, while men and women are equally likely to develop heart disease, women are more likely to die from it.
Like any disease, research and understanding are the keys to prevention and treatment. Gender-specific research has been on the rise in the last few decades, but the inclusion of women in cardiovascular clinical research has not always been the standard.
The face of heart disease as many people understand it has been traditionally shaped by research conducted primarily on average-sized, middle-aged men. Thus we have conceptions of a heart attack such as the indicator of crushing chest pain.
The dangers of this are that women and men have different physiologies and might respond differently to heart disease, have different symptoms, and/or need different treatments. While there is still much we need to learn about this, trials that are based on one segment of the population fail to present physicians with the data they may need to accurately diagnose and treat everyone.
The latest research is shedding light on the difference in symptoms between men and women, and there is growing evidence that men and women respond differently to drug therapies. There is also growing attention to sub-groups of women in trials as more needs to be understood surrounding factors like age, ethnicity or biological events (such as pregnancy and menopause) and how they might affect disease presentation and treatment.
Although we have made significant progress when it comes to women’s heart disease, there is still much we can learn when it comes to prevention, diagnosis and response to therapies.