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Heart disease affects 60 million women in the U.S., is medical sexism to blame? (Op-Ed)

Here is a terrifying statistic: Nearly half of all women in the United States are living with some form of heart disease. Cardiologist Dr. Kendra Marsh-Kates says that’s around 60 million women. How can half of the female population suffer from heart disease? A better question is, why aren’t we doing something about it?

“When I say heart disease, it’s a broad umbrella – heart artery disease and blockage, birth defects of the heart, acquired things like heart failure, all kinds of issues, but 60 million of us are living with heart disease,” she said, “The reason why we’re constantly raising and classifying better diagnostic tools for prevention is because we’re trying to cast the wide net for those patients we miss, that we don’t catch until unfortunately [in] the ER or at an autopsy. So, it’s still quite high.”

According to Dr. Marsh-Kates, women have less obvious symptoms of heart disease, and many of these cases are caused by hormonal changes such as pregnancy, menopause, and even menstrual cycle fluctuations. Several studies from the mid-2000s show that Women are less likely to receive progressive prevention guideline-driven care.

Medical sexism is an issue that may play into this alarming statistic. One study in the Journal of Women’s Health found that middle-aged women with chest pain were twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness when compared with their male counterparts. Another study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that women and people of color who visit emergency rooms often have to wait longer to see a doctor than white male patients. Heart disease is more likely to be labeled as anxiety, which can have devastating consequences for women, and women are often kept in the waiting room while men with the same symptoms are at the front of the line.

Dr. Jennifer Hermina Mieres says that “there are still big gender biases in health care. In 2011, my colleagues and I published data from a trial that highlighted some of the sex and gender differences in cardiovascular disease testing. But while we’ve raised this awareness, gaps remain in diagnosing the full spectrum of coronary heart disease in women.”

Women are often seen as “hysteric,” a term derived from the Greek word for “uterus.” Female hysteria was once a diagnosable condition, and unfortunately, the impact is still seen today. Doctors are less likely to believe women who report chest pain and refuse to run the appropriate testing measures to see if heart disease is the culprit. Women cannot continue to be written off as “anxious” when half of all American women are suffering from a form of heart disease.

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