Young Women Are Having More Heart Attacks – And It May Be Because Of How They're Treated By Doctors

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A new study has found that younger women are at increasing risk for heart attacks – and here’s what you can do about it

A twenty-year study on American’s heart heath comes with bad news for younger women: the chances of them suffering a heart attack between the ages of 34 and 54 have gone up significantly in the past couple of decades. While heart health has improved for men, and for older women, this demographic is suffering – and for what researchers believe are preventable reasons.

The heart attack study, which was published in the latest issue of the journal Circulation, focused on the incidence of heart attacks and their treatment in four communities across the United States between 1995 and 2014. While the analysis shed light on a number of trends in heart attack occurrence and treatment, the biggest finding was that despite an aging population, the percentage of heart attacks among the young is steadily climbing.

“The greater percentage of heart attacks among younger patients is alarming,” study co-author Melissa Caughey, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, told Today. “And that’s especially true in light of the fact that the population is aging.”

While the study couldn’t say exactly why more younger women were having heart attacks, it did find that the women who suffered from the condition displayed risk factors, like smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension.

Younger women simply might not realize that these issues can lead to heart problems, and doctors might not realize that younger women should be screened and treated for issues like high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

Another disturbing aspect of the study: women of all ages were not treated in the same way as men after a heart attack when it came to therapies and medicine, like blood thinners and cholesterol-lowering statins.

What can we do to help stop this trend? Experts agree that it’s about awareness and education, for both younger female patients and their doctors.

“This is a very important study,” Dr. Erin Michos, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology and associate director of the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland, told Today. “The main message to women is you shouldn’t think you’re too young for a heart attack. There has always been a misconception that this is just a man’s disease. And that leads to women being underdiagnosed and undertreated.”

Women can look at the list of risk factors and make lifestyle changes when necessary, especially concerning diet, exercise, sleep, and stress. They can also be sure to go in for their annual checkup and get screened for signs of heart problems, like their cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

“It is complex,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health, told CNN. “Are the risk factors and symptoms being recognized by the providers? Are the patients, although they have insurance, taking the time out to make an appointment? Was it difficult to get an appointment so they just gave up?”

“It’s possible, but look at some other behaviors in this age group,” Goldberg continued. “People are working and spending more time than in the past at their desks and are not physically active. Lack of physical activity is also a risk factor,” she said. “Lack of sleep and increased stress raises blood pressure; that’s also a risk factor.”

Younger women should realize that their feelings and concerns can be overlooked by doctors – doctors tend to ignore the pain of women, leading to undiagnosed conditions and untreated medical issues. For example, a man with high blood pressure might be given medicine, while a woman with high blood pressure might be told to relax more.

It’s also imperative to know the symptoms of having a heart attack so that you can act quickly – especially because women often display different signs then men (and are taken less seriously).

Don’t think that your heart attack will look or feel like the ones you see in the movies. Instead, know that the biggest symptoms in women are fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, pain between the shoulder blades, a cold sweat, and lightheadedness. Many women won’t even have a feeling that can be described as chest pain.

The bottom line? We need improved care and improved awareness when it comes to younger women and cardiovascular disease – and we need it now, because the numbers are only going up.