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American Heart Association: There’s Room for Improvement in Women’s Awareness of Heart Disease

Younger women and minorities still unaware of risks (Feb. 19)

The number of women aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death has nearly doubled in the last 15 years, but that knowledge still lags in minorities and younger women, according to a new study in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA).

Researchers comparing women’s views about heart disease in 1997 and today found:

  • In 2012, 56% of women identified heart disease as the leading cause of death compared with 30% in 1997.
  • In 1997, women were more likely to cite cancer than heart disease as the leading killer (35% versus 30%); but in 2012, only 24% cited cancer.
  • In 2012, 36% of black women and 34% of Hispanic women identified heart disease as the top killer — awareness levels that white women had in 1997 (33%).
  • Women 25 to 34 years old had the lowest awareness rate of any age group at 44%.

The study showed that barriers and motivators to engage in a heart-healthy lifestyle are different for younger women, who also said their doctors were less likely to talk to them about heart disease.

“This is a missed opportunity,” said lead author Lori Mosca, MD, MPH, PhD. “Habits established in younger women can have lifelong rewards. We need to speak to the new generation, and help them understand that living ‘heart healthy’ is going to help them feel better, not just help them live longer.”

In August—October 2012, researchers conducted online and telephone surveys with more than 1,200 women aged 25 years and older. The investigators compared results from surveys taken in 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009. The new study assessed women’s lifestyles, awareness of the leading cause of death, and warning signs of a heart attack, and what they would do if they experienced heart attack symptoms.

Among the women surveyed:

  • Sixty-one percent said the reason they would take preventive action was to feel better, compared with 45% who would be motivated to take preventive action in order to live longer.
  • Racial and ethnic minorities reported higher levels of trust in their healthcare providers compared with whites, and were also more likely to act on the information provided, dispelling the myth that mistrust of providers contributes to disparities.
  • Self-reported depression was common (26%) among respondents and has been reported in other studies as a barrier to adherence to medical guidelines.
  • Compared with older women, younger women were more likely to report not discussing risks for heart disease with their doctors (6% among those 25 to 34 years old versus 33% among those 65 years old and older).

Earlier this month, similar findings were reported by a researcher at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. According to Liliana Cohen, MD, relatively few women believe that heart disease is their greatest health threat.

“The symptom many women focus on is chest pain, but the reality is that women are also likely to experience other types of symptoms, including shortness of breath, back or jaw pain, and nausea or vomiting. This misperception may lead many women to ignore or minimize their symptoms and delay getting life-saving treatment,” Cohen said.

Sources: American Heart Association; February 19, 2013; and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; February 1, 2013.

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