Taking research to heart, finally

A new model for assessing women's risk of heart attacks.



Carol Lloyd
February 16, 2007 2:46AM (UTC)

Be still your heart, then take a deep breath: The post-Valentine's Day medical news affecting our beating, panting organs still leaves plenty to be desired.

In the wake of all the news around women's increased incidence of heart attacks, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital have come up with a new model for assessing risk in female patients. (Thanks to the tip from the Feminist Wire of Boston Globe's coverage.) Until now -- despite evidence that women exhibited different early signs of heart disease and heart attacks and doctors were failing to diagnose coronary disease in women as accurately as they did in men -- hospitals still used the same five criteria to measure risk developed from studies on men 40 years ago. (That's, like, when most public elementary schools still required that little girls wear dresses and Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" won album of the year.) Since up to 20 percent of women who suffer heart attacks and other coronary problems have none of the first five risk factors, it's hoped that the new model will help detect heart disease in those women who might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

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The new protocols use the five original factors -- age, smoking habits, blood pressure, total cholesterol and "good cholesterol," known as HDL -- and add two more: family history of heart disease and the level of C-reactive protein in the bloodstream, which can reveal elevated inflammation. This is all well and good, if long overdue. Since the Brigham owns a limited patent on C-reactive protein tests, receiving royalties every time the test is performed, it's still too early for fanfare.

A few inches away from women's historically neglected hearts, our lungs should inspire another reassessment of medical protocol. According to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, over 20 percent of women with lung cancer -- the nation's No. 1 killer form of cancer -- never smoked, reports Reuters.

Why is this so important? An editorial by Sandy Phillips Britt in the San Francisco Chronicle provides a painful case in point. At 46 she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and was given only a few months to live. Two years later, she received a second opinion that showed her earlier X-rays showed a fully operable level of cancer. Having never smoked a cigarette in her life, having steered clear of secondhand smoke like the plague, she still felt her misdiagnosis was in part a result of the stigma of a cancer that is assumed to have been brought on by bad habits. "Lung cancer is an unsympathetic cancer because most people who get it smoked," she writes. "Isn't it true that the 175,000 people that are diagnosed with lung cancer every year brought it on themselves?"

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Although no doubt men with lung cancer suffer similar discrimination, it's worth noting that not only is lung cancer a disease that kills more people every year than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined and proportionally gets far less funding, women seem to be far more vulnerable to it. Not only are they twice as likely to get lung cancer from using tobacco as men, now we know that a large and fast growing percentage of them never smoked at all.


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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