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Consumer Reports: Gender and heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women and men. CR Photo

The number one killer of men and women in the United States continues to be heart disease. But the most obvious expression of the disease, a heart attack, tends to strike women differently.

Consumer Reports helps us get to the heart of the matter, about what you need to know when it comes to gender and heart health.

One really good example is that women tend to have heart attacks later in life, usually around age 72. Whereas for men, it’s around age 65. Heart attacks are also deadlier in women. The American Heart Association says once you hit 45, 26 percent of women die in the year after their first heart attack. Compared with 19 percent of men.

When a woman is having a heart attack, the symptoms are different and they’re actually much less obvious. Which makes it more difficult to detect she’s actually having a heart attack.

So it’s really important for women to be aware of key, subtle signs, such as jaw or back pain, nausea and shortness of breath. Men typically have more classic symptoms, such as chest pain or tightness and pain radiating to the arms. As a result, women may be less likely to seek medical help than men and, may be more likely to be misdiagnosed in the emergency room.

When a heart attack is suspected, care also differs. An angiogram is a pretty standard, and it checks for blockages in the coronary arteries. But for women, the plaque tends to spread more evenly. So for women, an intravascular ultrasound may be a good, additional test.

Anyone who has had a heart attack should be prescribed medication, like low-dose aspirin, and also be referred to an exercise and a cardiac rehabilitation program. But research shows women are less likely than men to get a referral to those programs or to even go, when referred.

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