Rates of heart attacks, as well as risk factors for cardiovascular disease, have dropped in middle-aged men over the last 20 years while women’s rates and risk factors have increased, according to a study published Monday. The research suggests that risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, are not assessed or treated as aggressively in women as they are in men.
The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined data from national surveys taken from 1988 to 1994 and a second time period, from 1999 to 2004. More than 4,000 men and women age 35 to 54, completed the surveys. Researchers looked at how often men and women had heart attacks and compared their scores on a tool that measures the risk of having a cardiovascular event over 10 years. The measurement, called the Framingham coronary risk score, takes into account age, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and smoking history.
In both time periods, men had more heart attacks than women. But the rates in men improved from 2.5% in the first time frame to 2.2% in the second time frame while women’s rates increased from 0.7% to 1%.
Men’s cardiovascular risk factors improved or remained stable over the two study periods while the only risk factor that improved among women was high-density lipoprotein levels. Diabetes prevalence increased among men and women, most likely due to the obesity epidemic, the authors said.
Traditionally, women have been thought to be largely protected from heart attacks and stroke before menopause due to hormonal influences, said the lead author of the study, Dr. Amytis Towfighi, an assistant professor of neurology at USC. But heart attacks and strokes are increasing in middle-aged women.
“People didn’t think that women in that age group were at high risk for heart disease and stroke,” she said. “But I suspect that with growing rates of obesity, women aren’t as protected as much as they have been in the past.”
The news isn’t all bleak for women, however. A second study in the same journal found that in-hospital survival rates after a heart attack have improved more for women than men.
-- Shari Roan
Photo: A woman undergoes an ultrasound test to look for atherosclerosis. Credit: Karen Tapia / Los Angeles Times