Magazine article Newsweek International

Putting It All Together; New Medical Research Shows How Different from Men Women Really Are. Take Heart Disease: Women's Symptoms Are More Subtle and Often Get Overlooked. What to Watch for, What to Do

Magazine article Newsweek International

Putting It All Together; New Medical Research Shows How Different from Men Women Really Are. Take Heart Disease: Women's Symptoms Are More Subtle and Often Get Overlooked. What to Watch for, What to Do

Article excerpt

Byline: Claudia Kalb and Karen Springen, With Joan Raymond and Emily Flynn

Like most women, Helen Bryce, 44, wife, mother and manager at a London-based computer company, was well acquainted with the emotional chambers in her heart. Joy, sadness, love. But Bryce never thought much about her heart as a muscular pump: the size of a fist, weighing less than a can of soda, beating 100,000 times a day. And she certainly didn't think it was vulnerable to disease. Neither did her doctor. When she went to him complaining of stomach cramps last May, he told her it was indigestion. When the cramps didn't go away, the diagnosis changed to gallstones. But while Bryce was waiting for her nonpriority gallstones appointment--weeks away--the pains got so bad that she was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. The diagnosis: heart attack. "I didn't think [the doctor] was talking to me," she says. "I was thinking, 'Women my age can't have heart problems'."

That's a misconception many women share. According to the World Heart Federation, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of mortality among women worldwide, accounting for more than one third of all female deaths--about 8 million each year. That figure is 18 times higher than the number of deaths caused by breast cancer, and six times higher than HIV/AIDS-related deaths. Women who have heart attacks are treated less aggressively, fare worse and die at higher rates than men. And yet the vast majority of women worry more about their husband's dropping dead than they do about the danger lurking in their own blood vessels. "You just think it doesn't apply to you," says Bryce. "The biggest problem for women is changing this perception."

As the population ages and cardiovascular hazards like diabetes continue to rise, women are more at risk than ever. In response, public-health officials have launched awareness campaigns to sound the alarm about this "silent killer." Scientists are busy unraveling the unique and sometimes mysterious ways in which coronary disease develops in a woman's body. And doctors in the know are educating their peers, many of whom still operate under the bias that men have a monopoly on matters of the heart. All the attention is starting to pay off, says cardiologist Bernadine Healy, the first female director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who helped put women and heart disease on the map, "but there's no doubt we have a way to go."

From an anatomical point of view, a woman's heart is no different from a man's: four chambers and several ounces of muscle tissue. But the symptoms of heart disease in men and women can appear as different as, well, the colors blue and pink. Men typically experience difficulty breathing and chest pain--still considered the hallmark symptom of a heart attack--which can travel up to the jaw and down the arm. Many women, however, feel no chest sensation at all, and their symptoms are often subtle: an unyielding fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea or indigestion, back or abdominal pain, or just an odd, unwell feeling. Compounding all that is the fact that too many women downplay their health for the sake of their families, says Dr. Vera Rigolin, of Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital: "They tend to ignore the symptoms because they have to take care of everybody else."

Carolyn O'Donnell, 62, remembers feeling "like a wuss" when her husband made her go to the ER. A runner and golfer, O'Donnell is normally an upbeat, high-energy grandmother of four. But on April Fool's Day 2002, she felt a little bit off. She was tired, she had a headache and she noticed an odd sensation near her heart. It was mild, though, no radiating pain, nothing more than "a mouse on my chest," she says, not that elephant everybody worries about. Her self-diagnosis: probably just the flu. But O'Donnell's husband--luckily, a physician--insisted she be checked out. Doctors discovered a piece of plaque clogging a crucial artery and a heart working at half its normal capacity. …

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