Health and Healthcare Systems

The health needs of women are being overlooked. It's time to bring this injustice to a halt 

A child waits in his pram while his mother participates in an aerobics class at the gymnasium of a sports center in Cartago, east of San Jose July 10, 2012. More than 300 people participate in aerobics program organized by a local committee, with the objective of reducing heart disease, obesity and sedentary lifestyle of the population of Cartago, according to program director Ivonne Martinez. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate (COSTA RICA - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY) - RTR34T2M

For decades, heart disease was considered a “man’s illness”, despite the facts telling a different story Image: REUTERS/Juan Carlos

Nancy Brown
Chief Executive Officer, American Heart Association
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

According to the World Health Organization, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which include cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease, are the leading cause of death among women globally and cause two in every three deaths among women each year.

The devastating impact of NCDs among women is only expected to increase in the coming years, especially in low and middle-income countries.

An estimated 17.7 million people died from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) in 2015, representing 31% of all global deaths.

Of these deaths, an estimated 7.4 million were due to coronary heart disease, and 6.7 million were due to stroke.

Though we’ve made great strides in awareness, many people, and even doctors, still don’t realize that heart disease is the number one cause of death in women.

Ignored for too long

For far too long, women’s specific health needs and concerns have been overlooked, and it is time to bring this injustice to a halt.

Even in developed nations such as the United States, attention has overwhelmingly been skewed toward the impact of disease in men; a clear example of this is cardiovascular disease.

For decades, cardiovascular disease was considered a “man’s illness,” despite statistics that told a different story.

As a result, women have been under-represented for years as subjects in clinical trials; subsequently, there is an overwhelming lack of scientific research that specifically targets the causes and symptoms of cardiovascular disease in women.

Only 35% of the participants in cardiovascular clinical research studies are women, and only 25% of cardiovascular clinical trials report sex-specific results, making it difficult for researchers and clinicians to draw conclusions about their effects on women.

The irrefutable statistical evidence indicates that more women are killed by cardiovascular disease each year than men, and that heart attacks in women are deadlier, with 26% of women aged 45 and older dying in the first year after their first heart attack, compared with 19% of men.

If our experience in America serves to teach the world, we cannot ignore women and must engage them from all corners of the earth to define solutions for her health.

What we know

Cardiovascular disease impacts women and men differently.

For example, one study showed that nearly two-thirds of women who died suddenly from coronary heart disease experienced no previous symptoms, versus half of men.

Also, researchers have identified gender differences in response to cardiac medications.

Drugs that are beneficial for men may even be harmful to women.

And it is well established that women’s heart attack symptoms are often different from men’s.

As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort.

But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

Finding solutions

Of course, these disparities extend far beyond cardiovascular disease.

There is a great opportunity to advance our knowledge base to specifically diagnose, prevent, and treat illnesses in women.

Some ways we can address these disparities include:

  • Ensure that women in every nation have equal access to affordable high-quality healthcare that is culturally and language-appropriate.
  • Engage women everywhere, including in low-resource countries, early in the exploration phase of studies and trials.
  • Create evidence-based treatment and prevention guidelines focused specifically on women.
  • Advocate for legislation to increase women’s representation in clinical trials.

And, finally, we need to continue to raise our voices, and bring people together to ensure that the spotlight is rightfully placed on women's health.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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