Does Sexism Cause Women to Delay Heart Attack Treatment?

woman holding her chestThough heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, many don’t seek prompt care when they experience symptoms of a heart attack. This results in a disproportionately high heart attack death rate, with women more than 50% more likely to die during a heart attack than men. In the six years following a heart attack, women are nearly twice as likely as men to experience a second heart attack.

A small study published in Circulation suggests that sexist stereotypes about women could help explain why women sometimes delay heart attack treatment.

Are Sexist Stereotypes Killing Women?

To explore why women delay treatment for cardiovascular symptoms, researchers interviewed 30 women between the ages of 30 and 55 who had experienced heart attacks. Many of the women said they didn’t recognize their symptoms as cardiovascular. Women often experience different heart attack symptoms from men.

Among women who did think they were having heart attacks, sexist stereotypes figured into their decisions about whether to seek treatment. Those women reported fears of being labeled hypochondriacs. Though women are being taken more and more seriously within the medical community, a long-held sexist stereotype suggests that women exaggerate or manufacture medical symptoms. Research suggests that doctors may fall for these stereotypes. One 2011 study found that 62% of doctors refer men with symptoms of cardiovascular disease to cardiologists. When women report the same symptoms, fewer than half of doctors refer them to cardiac specialists.

Recognizing the Signs of a Heart Attack in Women

On television and in movies, a heart attack is a dramatic event that’s impossible to ignore. For women, though, the symptoms are frequently more subtle. Knowing the symptoms of a heart attack in women can save your life or help you encourage a woman you care about to seek treatment. Some signs it’s time to seek emergency help include:

  • Nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath
  • Breaking into a cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain in the arms, neck, jaw, stomach, or back. Some women experience tingling, numbness, or electrical sensations.
  • Chest pain, especially tightening in the chest

References:

  1. Dador, D. (2011, November 2). ‘Medical Sexism’: Women’s heart disease symptoms often dismissed. Retrieved from http://abc7.com/archive/8416664/
  2. Heart attack symptoms in women. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/WarningSignsofaHeartAttack/Heart-Attack-Symptoms-in-Women_UCM_436448_Article.jsp
  3. Singh, M. (2015, February 24). Younger women hesitate to say they’re having a heart attack. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/02/24/388787045/younger-women-hesitate-to-say-theyre-having-a-heart-attack
  4. Women and heart disease. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.texasheart.org/HIC/Topics/HSmart/women.cfm

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  • tara

    tara

    March 4th, 2015 at 2:35 PM

    Is it sexism or just the lack of education about what heart disease looks like in women versus what it looks like in men?

  • Dyan

    Dyan

    March 5th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    This is pretty scary stuff when you start thinking about how many women die every year from heart disease and yet they are still unable to get a correct diagnosis from their doctors. What is it? Men just think that this is something that only happens to men even though the numbers pretty definitively show us that this is something that impacts women very frequently? And shame on anyone who makes someone feel afraid to seek out treatment! Don’t shame them for having these symptoms and being concerned- what kind of a real provider of medical care would do that?

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