News, Culture & Society

Women have twice the risk for fatal heart complications

Women are twice as likely to develop fatal heart complications than men, new research warns.

The study found mental stress such as public speaking was more likely to cause myocardial ischemia, inadequate blood flow to the heart muscle, in young women who have had a heart attack compared to their male peers.  

While previous studies showed a higher heart risk from mental stress for women, it wasn’t clear to what extent.

The new research, published today by the American Heart Association, offers clearer evidence than ever that women may need more intensive care after a cardiac event than men, and mental stress may affect women’s hearts more.

Women are twice as likely to develop fatal heart complications than men, new study warns

‘The magnitude of the difference in ischemia between women and men despite similarities in risk factors and a tendency toward less severe coronary obstruction among women [surprised me],’ Dr Viola Vaccarino, professor of medicine at Emory University who led the new research, told Daily Mail Online.

Myocardial ischemia, defined as inadequate blood flow to the heart muscle due to reduction in blood flow to the heart, can be caused by partial or complete blockage of the heart’s arteries.

For the study, researchers, led by Dr Vaccarino, collected data from 150 women and 156 men under the age of 61 who were hospitalized for heart attacks and 112 men and women who did not suffer heart attacks.

Among heart attack survivors, the clinical severity tended to be lower in women.

They measured how well the participants’ blood vessels functioned at rest and 30 minutes after mental stress caused by a public speaking task that asked subjects to imagine a real-life stressful situation, in which a close relative had been mistreated in a nursing home and asked to make up a realistic story around this scenario

They found that young female heart attack survivors had twice the risk of experiencing myocardial ischemia induced by mental stress. There was a similar increase in the condition as a result of conventional stress such as exercise or drugs.

‘This finding was observed despite the fact that women had less obstructive [coronary artery disease] than men,’ researchers wrote.

Researchers also found mental stress was associated with microvascular dysfunction, a chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood and peripheral vasoconstriction, the narrowing of the blood vessels, among women but not men. 

According to Dr Vaccarino, the findings suggest women are prone to ischemia because of ‘microcirculatory abnormalities’, or the circulation of the blood in small blood vessels. 

‘I believe it is mainly because [women] have a tendency to develop constriction of tiny peripheral and coronary blood vessels, which is a mechanism through which emotional stress can affect cardiovascular risk,’ she told Daily Mail Online.   

This isn’t the first study to find women are more likely to have stress-induced ehart complications than men.

A 2017 study published in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology found women with heart disease experience reduced blood supply to the organ when under pressure, a study reveals today. 

Furthermore, a 2016 study from Cambridge University found stress, which has been linked to an increased risk of ischemia in women, is twice as likely to happen in women than men.

‘Many [women] have full-time jobs and at the same time have many responsibilities at home,’ Dr Vaccarino explained. ‘Many face financial hardship, and depression and anxiety are also common in this group.’

Myocardial ischemia can damage the heart muscle, reducing its ability to pump efficiently. A sudden, severe blockage of a coronary artery can lead to a heart attack

Symptoms of the condition include chest pressure or pain, typically on the left side of the body (angina pectoris). Other signs and symptoms include neck or jaw pain, shoulder or arm pain, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, sweating and fatigue. 

Dr Vaccarino said the findings reveal how exposure to stress play an important role in women’s heart risk and she hopes it’ll bring attention to the role it plays on developing heart problems in women. 

‘It is important for them to find time to relax and exercise. In some cases, psychological counseling may be helpful as well,’ she added.