Health Team

Heart disease acts differently in men, women

Posted October 16, 2009 3:34 p.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2009 7:32 p.m. EDT

Heart disease affects women differently than men – and kills more women. Some researchers want doctors to start naming and treating it differently as well.

Beauty consultant Charlotte Bornstein didn't have the typical signs of heart disease, such as a family history or bad cholesterol. But she ended up having two heart attacks.

"At no point ever in my life did anyone tell me I would have a heart attack," she said.

Bornstein turned to specialists studying the differences between men and women with cardiac problems.

Researchers found that treating both sexes with long-used guidelines, which are based on studies of men, is not helpful for many women. Some female patients don't have the fatty plaque and blocked major arteries that are common in men.

"Almost half of women don't have that problem. They actually have problems in the smaller arteries that you cannot see on the traditional angiogram," said Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, with Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.

That turned out to be the case with Bornstein: She had small-vessel, micro-valve disease.

Doctors have been working on this research for 15 years and believe it will help health care providers diagnose both male and female patients more effectively.

Researchers want to categorize the disease that Bornstien suffered separately and call it ischemic heart disease. They said they hope such a conceptual shift will lead to better treatment for patients.

"If you can name something, then you feel like you can see it. And if you think you can see it, then maybe you can do something about it," Bairey Merz said.