February is National Heart Month, which means there is no better time to discuss the unique health-related challenges women face, particularly when it comes to women’s heart health.
Heart disease is a major health problem for women and is one of the medical problems where it is important to know how it impacts men and women differently. One of the issues for women is that heart disease is often talked about in gendered language or shown primarily as a “man’s disease.” Just think, have you ever seen a woman portrayed as having a heart attack in a movie or on a television series? I cannot think of one. In the United States, even though heart disease affects both men and women, heart disease is generally shown as a male health problem.
This is a dangerous precedent because despite the perception, more women die of heart disease each year than men. [i] In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in America, with 1 in 3 women’s deaths being caused by heart disease.[ii] So why is that we rarely hear about heart disease in women?
Well, this is not the first time women’s health has gone unnoticed. Scientific study has often neglected to research how health problems, such as heart disease, impact men and women differently. In 1996, a survey of medical professionals showed that two-thirds of doctors did not know there were different heart attack symptoms for women and men.[iii] This means, women were going undiagnosed or, perhaps even worse, were given a psychiatric diagnosis for their symptoms.[iv]
However, engaging the scientific community in women’s health is not an issue of the past. In scientific research, women still only make up 24 percent of all participants for studies on heart-related problems.[v] With such a gap in research, knowledge of how diseases impact women differently than men may not be available to the medical community.
Unfortunately, differential treatment in health care is not limited to the United States or to heart disease. In many societies, it is not simply an issue of awareness or lack of research; it is that women do not have the same level of access to health care as men. In many countries, women’s access to health care is limited because there are an inadequate number of female physicians. This, accompanied by a cultural norm requiring women to only be treated by female physicians, means women go untreated or must wait longer to see a doctor. Sometimes differential access is a result of women and girl’s health being considered unimportant or a secondary priority to the health of the men in the family. These types of barriers mean women may face a greater risk of dying from routine diseases.
Women are essential to ensuring the health of society in their roles as caregivers, providers, and mothers. So, as we celebrate National Heart Month this February, let us think about how we can broaden the scope of research and health care so both women and men receive the necessary medical attention.