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  • Women and Heart Disease: Decreasing the Stigma and Increasing Awareness
    08/22/2019

    Women and Heart Disease: Decreasing the Stigma and Increasing Awareness

    Societal views about weight and health have prevented women from properly caring for their hearts for too long. In this age of modern medicine, discriminatory care is not permitted and not nearly as normalized as it’s been historically. This doesn’t change the fact that many women feel embarrassed about talking about heart disease, and they are still less likely to bring the issue up with their doctor. In fact, nearly 70 percent of women never raise the issue of heart health with their physicians. So, how come in 2019, women still feel the need to hide their heart-health issues from the world? Is the societal pressure surrounding body image the only thing that’s keeping women from discussing heart disease? Let’s examine this more closely and then dive into how to recognize the signs and risk factors of heart disease in women.

    Social Stigma Surrounding Women and Weight

    Collective societal impression has ignored the threat that heart disease presents for women due to social stigmas that hinder proper diagnosis of major cardiovascular issues. Western society glamorizes body ideals to an unhealthy extent that makes it difficult for women to notice the signs of heart disease. Because of an unrealistic standard, women often disregard the signs of heart disease because it’s often assumed that their diet or exercise routine is to blame, not a persistent heart issue. Even physicians can overlook symptoms of heart disease and often attribute them to weight issues. Women are often told to simply “lose weight” even when they present with clear signs of heart disease. 

    Because of this stigma and pressure, women are less likely to bring up discomfort or pain to their doctors if they feel embarrassed or ashamed of their weight. In fact, 45 percent of women have cancelled or postponed an appointment with a doctor until they were able to lose a few pounds. Judgment surrounding body weight is a major hindrance to the proper care or treatment of a cardiovascular issue.

    Are Most Women Uneducated About Heart Disease?

    Body image is not the only reason women are timid to discuss heart disease with their doctors and loved ones. Heart disease has long been deemed a male-centric issue, but in fact, it’s the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Even though around 1 in every 5 female deaths are caused by heart disease, only 50 percent of women are aware of it. In fact, there is a lot about heart disease that women don’t know according to a survey conducted by the Women’s Heart Alliance.

    The study found that most women were unaware that men and women can display different symptoms of heart disease and heart attack and that most research has been conducted on men. Even though 83 percent of women believed being overweight was a risk factor for heart disease, 43 percent did not understand the link between heart disease and diabetes. Less than 25 percent of women realized the link between heart disease and gynecological issues. So, what is the reason behind this lack of knowledge?

    Education and Awareness Gap

    The emphasis on heart diseases awareness, particularly symptoms and prevention tips, has always been mainly focused on males. The main problem stems from the fact that heart disease education for women is not a top priority for most physicians. According to the survey, only 39 percent of primary care physicians stated that heart disease is an extremely concerning issue, whereas 48 percent stated that weight issues and breast health were extremely concerning. Because weight and breast health tend to take precedence for women, the topic of heart health usually does not come up in a routine physical unless the patient fully reports symptoms. Not only are most women too embarrassed to disclose their heart disease symptoms, but they assume their doctor will bring it up if there is a problem.  

    Increasing Awareness for Women  

    Fortunately, organizations like the Women’s Heart Alliance and Close the Gap have been increasing awareness and educating the public about women and heart disease. Changing the public’s perception but also individual behavior is essential in reducing the prevalence of heart disease in women. Understanding the risk factors and symptoms, and then more importantly, not being afraid to discuss them with your doctor, are the steps these organizations are trying to encourage women to take. Common signs of heart disease in women include:

    • Neck, jaw, shoulder, or upper back pain
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea or indigestion
    • Sweating
    • Lightheadedness
    • Extreme fatigue
    • And many more  

    Anyone can help spread the word. Encourage your female friends and loved ones to talk to their doctors about their heart health. No one knows your body like you do, so don’t be afraid to speak up. After all, a lack of communication could be fatal.  

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