The study, published in the European Heart Journal, found that death rates from heart disease have gone up in younger women after researchers examined a U.S. national database of death certificates for women under age 65 between 1999 and 2018. Death rates for both cancer and heart disease had been going down. “But after 2010, heart disease stopped declining in women and started increasing,” senior author of the study Dr. Erin D. Michos, director of women’s cardiovascular health and associate director of preventive cardiology at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, tells Yahoo Life.
Compared with cancer, deaths from heart disease increased in women aged 25 to 34 years old and 55 to 64 years old, along with non-Hispanic whites and Native Americans/Alaskan natives, according to the study. “That’s concerning,” says Michos. “If we keep on this trajectory, heart disease is going to surpass cancer. This is a bad trend.”
Michos tells Yahoo Life that death rates in women 45 to 64 years old in particular are “increasing rapidly.” She points out that those years are a “challenging time in a woman's life,” adding: “Often they have young children and aging parents. They’re this middle generation where they’re taking care of people on both spectrums and their careers. It’s not easy. They can neglect their own health because they’re taking care of everybody.”
Dr. Deirdre Mattina, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “If you’re the primary caregiver in your home, usually you’re putting your own self on the back burner.”
Michos says that the COVID-19 pandemic has only “exacerbated” this issue. She explains that during the pandemic, some have been less physically active, struggling to fit in exercise while juggling work and helping kids with school. Stress levels — which have been high for many during the pandemic — is also a factor that affects heart health. “Stress can definitely affect blood flow to the heart as well,” says Mattina.
In addition, Michos says that some have neglected their cardiovascular care because of the COVID pandemic, fearing that they were taking a risk by going to doctor appointments or the hospital. “But [hospitals] are well equipped to take care of people's heart needs,” says Mattina. And Michos adds: “While we’re in a pandemic, we can’t ignore the pandemic of obesity and diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
Another reason why heart disease deaths in young women is increasing is a lack of awareness of the disease, which Mattina calls “disheartening.” Both Michos and Mattina point out that, although heart disease awareness in older women has remained steady, awareness in young women and women of color has actually gone down. The American Heart Association (AHA) launched their “Go Red for Women” campaign in 2014, aimed to “make women aware that heart disease is the number one killer,” says Mattina. But the AHA’s 2020 report found that over the past decade “rates of heart disease awareness have gone down from 65 to 44 percent,” notes Mattina.
Women are more likely to cite breast cancer as the leading cause of death, notes Michos. “Breast cancer is devastating of course,” says Michos, “but women are far more likely to die of cardiovascular disease.” She adds: “The important finding of our study is we’ve slowed down making progress [in heart disease awareness] and we’re actually reversing progress. We’re actually losing ground and heading in the wrong direction.”
Michos hopes the study will serve as a wake-up call to women to not neglect their own health. “We’re all busy, but we can’t ignore our health,” Michos says. “All women should know their numbers and get their blood pressure and cholesterol checked and know their body mass index, blood glucose and family history,” as well as share any pregnancy-related health issues with their doctors, including preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, which Michos says are “red flags” that can put women at risk of heart disease complications later in life. “Women need to take the time to prioritize our own health,” says Michos.
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