Associate Professor Jennifer Dungan, MSN, PhD, recently created the below story in honor of World Heart Day:
Each year on Sept. 29, World Heart Day is celebrated around the globe. This event is dedicated to increasing local, national and worldwide awareness of a condition deadlier than all forms of cancer combined: heart disease. It is also a time when I reflect on the people in my life affected by heart disease, including those whose lives it has claimed.
In the time it will take you to read this paragraph, heart disease will claim another life in the United States, and 34 lives across the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this condition is also the leading cause of death for men and women, mostly caused by heart attacks or strokes.
However, most people do not know that there are differences in the way each person experiences heart disease, some of which are crucially important.
Although no two bodies are the same, this is especially true when it comes to heart disease between the sexes. For reasons that remain uncertain, women can experience unusual symptoms, such as unusual fatigue (tiredness), pain between the shoulder blades, palpitations (fluttering in the chest) or a fullness in the chest — symptoms that are less common among men with the same condition.
Even when women do seek care for these unusual symptoms of heart disease, their labs and test results are more likely than men to be deemed “inconclusive” for the condition, an experience I know too well from some women in my family. Because of this, women experience delayed treatment for heart disease much more frequently and may even have undiagnosed heart attacks, leading to worse health outcomes.
Some of these differences could be explained by our genetics, a theory that I put to the test in a recent study, published in American Heart Journal Plus. My team and I found that the set of genes influencing worse heart disease outcomes among women were very different than the list of genes among men. This may help explain how men and women can have the same type of heart disease, but instead experience different symptoms and outcomes.
Unfortunately, these disease differences most adversely impact Black women and women of some Hispanic ethnicities. For women, especially women of color, genes alone cannot overcome the unique barriers that lead to heart health disparities, but future research may provide all women with more accurate tools to diagnose and treat their hearts.
For this World Heart Day, it is my hope that cardiac researchers, such as myself, will get one step closer to eliminating heart health disparities. When it comes to your risk factors and symptoms, do your part and trust your heart. World Heart Day is also the perfect day to plan to protect your heart. Speak to your provider about your unique risks and how to recognize signs of a heart attack, including signs that may appear out of the norm. Together, we will get to the heart of this issue.
Jennifer Dungan, MSN, PhD
Associate Professor at the UF College of Nursing