A heartbreaking statistic

Women are twice as likely to die after cardiac surgery as men, a new study shows

Published July 30, 2009 1:30PM (EDT)

Here's a statistic that stopped me in my tracks: Women are twice as likely as men to die after undergoing heart surgery. While previous researchers have come to similar conclusions, the latest study "is the most comprehensive of its kind, with 400,000 operations investigated by the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery in Great Britain and Ireland." And that's not the end of the bad news: According to the study's author, cardiac surgeon Ben Bridgewater, "The gap between men and women ... seems to be getting worse because the improvement rates in men are better."

What's most frustrating about this news is that no one seems to know why women are dying at such alarming rates after cardiac surgery. Bridgewater points out that it's "technically more difficult to operate on women because their coronary arteries are smaller." He also speculates that ladies who assume only men have heart attacks may wait to contact their doctor about cardiac symptoms.

I can't help but wonder, though, whether this also has something to do with a dearth of research on how women react to cardiac drugs and procedures. The Women's Health Project at the University of Michigan notes that, "Until recently, most health research was conducted on males.  Researchers believed that the answers they got could be applied to women also." It's been established, for instance, that the signs of heart distress we're told to look for are much more common in men:

Most women know that chest pain, pain in the left arm and shortness of breath are symptoms of a heart attack.  But did you know that women are less likely to experience these symptoms and may just feel dizzy, nauseated and pain in their abdomen?  The usual tool for diagnosing heart disease, the EKG stress test, is often not helpful in diagnosing heart disease in women and may lead to women being under-treated or not treated at all.

Rather than falling prey to the (rapidly disappearing) myth that heart attacks are for men, women may just not know they're experiencing dangerous cardiac symptoms and put off visiting a doctor until it's too late.

But even if women realize they're having heart trouble, they still may not get appropriate care. According to The Women's Health Project, women "more commonly experience severe complications of the medication used to treat heart disease—medication that has mainly been tested on men." There are no easy solutions here, of course. But take heart: With every little bit we learn, we get closer to fixing this sad disparity.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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