82 percent of women have at least one factor that puts them at risk for a future heart attack

In the second year of a Northern California-based survey conducted by Sutter Health on women and heart disease, results show that more women are aware of heart attack warning signs and the need to take action quickly. However, there remains an alarming disconnect when it comes to women personalizing their own risk for heart disease based on factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight and smoking.

According to the most recent survey results, 82 percent of women in Northern California between the ages of 40 and 70 reported that they have at least one factor that puts them at risk for a future heart attack. However, less than a third of them perceived themselves as at real risk. Sutter's annual heart health survey was conducted in January 2005 and included 2,200 randomly selected women throughout the northern part of the state.

"Despite some growing awareness and success in educating women in Northern California about heart disease, there's still an overwhelming number of women who don't realize that they are at risk for a heart attack," said Diane Sobkowicz, M.D., a cardiologist with Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. "There continues to be a huge disconnect between women understanding risks for heart disease, and women changing their behavior and lifestyles to lessen their actual risk of having a first heart attack," she said.

Heart disease, which kills over 1 million Americans each year, has killed more women than men since 1984. In fact, the American Heart Association reports that 1 in every 3 women die of heart disease each year, and that 1 in every 5 women have some form of heart disease.

Study Results: Actual Risk vs. Perceived Risk

Of the 2,200 women who participated in Sutter Health's latest heart health survey, nearly one-third of the total (32 percent) reported having multiple risk factors for heart disease, however they did not perceive themselves to be at risk for a heart attack. Another 21 percent of the women self-reported one risk factor, yet still they had no perceived risk. Only 29 percent of the population acknowledged and identified themselves as having true risk for a future heart attack.

A small portion of the survey participants -- 14 percent -- said they had no risk factors, and 4 percent had suffered a previous heart attack. The survey also revealed some early indicators for heart disease within the target group. They are:

  • -- 55 percent of women said they were at least 20 pounds overweight
  • -- 44 percent of women said they have a family history of heart attacks
  • -- 32 percent of women reported high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol
  • -- 13 percent of women smoke
  • -- 10 percent of women have diabetes

"Our greatest challenge in preventing heart disease and heart attacks is changing behaviors," explains Meg Durbin, M.D., a family practice physician with Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "Change isn't always easy, but with the support of family, friends and doctors, the women in our lives -- our moms, sisters and daughters -- can take some simple steps toward better heart health," she said.

Sutter Health's latest survey results of risk awareness and change in behavior remained relatively static from the first annual study in 2003, however, there were significant gains made in the area of increased awareness of heart attack warning signs and the importance of annual screening for heart disease.

This year's heart health study found that 79 percent of women surveyed said they understand that the signs and symptoms of a heart attack may be different in women than in men, up from only 64 percent in the previous year. In addition, 70 percent of women respondents now believe that being screened for heart disease annually is as important as getting an annual mammogram, up again from 65 percent one year prior.

Understanding the warning signs of heart attack and the importance of screening are very important first steps that can actually save women's lives, according to Dr. Sobkowicz. "Heart disease in women can look and act very differently than in men. National research indicates that because of these differences, women are less likely to be diagnosed and treated early," she said.

While most men experience chest pain as a primary warning sign of heart attack, less than 30 percent of women will experience chest pain. Many more women having a heart attack are more likely to experience commons symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, indigestion or gas-like pain, unexplained weakness or fatigue, and discomfort or pain between the shoulder blades.

Patient-Doctor Communications is Key In Fighting Heart Disease

Since the first Northern California heart health survey was conducted by Sutter Health in 2004, the not for profit health system has mounted an extensive outreach campaign to educate all Northern California communities about the risk to women from heart disease and women's unique symptoms associated with heart attacks. This campaign, known as the Women's Heart Advantage* program, includes physician and nurse education; educational materials for women available in physicians' offices; outreach to women through health fairs, their employers and community lectures; focused information available in community publications; and outreach through public media. Heart care experts across the Sutter network are also working to ensure that primary care and emergency room physicians have the same access to the latest information regarding heart disease in women.

"We need to educate more women about the risks and encourage them to have a greater dialog about heart disease with their doctors," said Dr. Durbin. "With coronary risk factors like obesity and diabetes on the rise in this country, we all have to work together to combat this serious health risk and get patients and physicians working more closely together to monitor and treat risks early," she said.

Along with the Women's Heart Advantage program, Sutter Health has instituted an aggressive clinical initiative around the treatment of heart attack. In 2004, Sutter established systemwide set of rigorous protocols for care of patients experiencing heart attacks. These evidence-based clinical care protocols are based on the latest scientific data, and are considered the most effective treatments for heart disease and those with the best outcomes for patients. As part of this ongoing clinical initiative, Sutter Health's 26 affiliated hospitals and its physicians will continually collect data and monitor outcomes of both men and women treated in their facilities against the new protocols.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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