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The Importance of Being Heart Smart: Gender Disparity in the Misdiagnosis of Heart Attacks

Written by Elizabeth Gilbert

Heart rate monitor

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, responsible for 1 in every 5 female deaths.  In 2020, 314,186 women in the United States died from heart disease. Moreover, approximately 1 in 16 women over the age of 20 have coronary heart disease. Despite the prevalence of heart disease among women, there is a higher instance of heart attack misdiagnosis in women when compared to men.

Why Is There a Higher Instance of Heart Attack Misdiagnosis in Women?

Researchers exploring this topic have uncovered complex reasons for this disparity. A study presented at the European Society of Cardiology in 2021 found that women with chest pain are more likely than men to wait over 12 hours before seeking medical attention. The study’s author, Dr. Gemma Martinez-Nadal of the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona Spain, explained, “Our findings suggest a gender gap in the first evaluation of chest pain, with the likelihood of heart attack being underestimated in women. The low suspicion of heart attack occurs in both women themselves and in physicians, leading to higher risks of late diagnosis and misdiagnosis.”

In a study of women in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, researchers found that women who had a final diagnosis of a STEMI heart attack, which occurs when there is a total blockage of a coronary artery, had a 59% greater chance of a misdiagnosis when compared with men. Women who had a final diagnosis of an NSTEMI heart attack, which is a partial blockage of one or more coronary arteries, had a 41% greater chance of misdiagnosis when compared with men. Onethe  of researchers who worked on the study, Dr. Chris Gale of the University of Leeds, explained, “We need to work harder to shift the perception that heart attacks only affect a certain type of person. . . .  [H]eart attacks affect the wider spectrum of the population – including women.”

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta offers the following insights into why heart attacks may be misdiagnosed in women:

  • The difference in symptoms between men and women
    • Women with cardiovascular diseases exhibit a wider range of symptoms when compared to men. For example, women may experience stomach pain and nausea as symptoms.
  • The type of test performed for the diagnosis
    • A test that measures the blood level of troponin, a protein that is released into circulation in response to cardiac tissue damage, is commonly used to diagnose heart attacks and the same diagnostic threshold is used for both men and women. Nevertheless, it has recently been observed that women experiencing heart attacks have lower blood troponin levels than men.  In fact, the use of highly sensitive tests with gender-specific thresholds can increase diagnostic accuracy in women by 42%.
  • Implicit gender bias
    • Implicit gender bias in some physicians may be associated with heart attack misdiagnosis in women. Even when men and women present with the same symptoms, physicians who perceive men as stronger and more willing to take risks than women are more likely to recommend angiography for male patients than they are for female patients.

What Steps Can You Take to Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease?

The CDC recommends taking the following actions to lower the chance of getting heart disease:

  • Know your blood pressure and have it checked regularly because high blood pressure has no symptoms.
  • Talk to your health care providers about whether you should be tested for diabetes, which can increase your risk of heart disease, and about checking your blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Quit smoking and limit how much alcohol you drink to one drink a day.
  • Make healthy food choices, as being overweight or obese raises your risk of heart disease.

What Can You Do if You or Your Loved One Experience a Heart Attack Misdiagnosis?

If you or a loved one have experienced a heart attack misdiagnosis, you should reach out to an attorney right away. Contact the experienced attorneys at Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC if you have questions about your legal rights following a heart attack misdiagnosis in Connecticut. To schedule a free, no-obligation consultation, call or contact us online today.