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Heart attack gender gap ‘costing women's lives’

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women who are misdiagnosed have a 70% higher risk women who are initially misdiagnosed have a 70% higher risk of dying

Inequalities in awareness, diagnosis and treatment of heart attacks are leading to women needlessly dying every day in the UK, according to a new report by the British Heart Foundation.

The research has shown that women are 50% more likely to receive a wrong initial diagnosis when they are having a heart attack. Both men and women who are initially misdiagnosed have a 70% higher risk of dying.

Additionally, over a ten-year period, it is estimated that more than 8,200 heart attack deaths in women in England and Wales could have been prevented if they had received the same standard of care as men. The study found women were less likely to receive standard treatments including bypass surgery and stents.

‘Heart attacks have never been more treatable,’ said Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation. ‘Yet women are dying needlessly because heart attacks are often seen as a man’s disease, and women don’t receive the same standard of treatment as men. The studies detailed in this briefing have revealed inequalities at every stage of a woman’s medical journey.’

The report also found that risk factors for heart disease are often more deadly for women. Smoking increases women's heart attack risk up to twice as much as men’s, high blood pressure increases women’s risk 80% more, and type 2 diabetes increases women’s risk 50% more. Around 35,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack in the UK each year, an average of 98 women a day, or four per hour.

‘This problem is not unique to the UK. Studies across the globe have also revealed gender-gaps in treatment, suggesting this is a deeply entrenched and complex issue,’ said Chris Gale, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Leeds. ‘On their own, the differences in care are very small, but when we look at this across the population of the UK, it adds up to a significant loss of life. We can do better.’

Furthermore, women often receive poorer aftercare, following a heart attack. A study showed that women in England and Wales were 2.7% less likely to be prescribed statins and 7.4% less likely to be prescribed beta blockers when leaving hospital, despite their proven benefit of lowering the risk of a subsequent heart attack or stroke.

“The first steps to closing this gender gap include changing the public perception of women and heart attacks. The assumption that women are not at risk of heart attack is false, and has proven to be deadly,’ added Dr Babu-Narayan.

‘As a starting point, we want to empower women to better understand their risk and to know the many symptoms of a heart attack. When someone has a heart attack – every second counts. The sooner people recognise their symptoms and call 999, the better their chance of recovery.

‘In addition, we need to continue to fund research to better prevent, diagnose and treat heart attacks. We also need to raise national awareness of gender-based inequalities in heart attack care and identify and guard against unconscious biases that could contribute to them.’

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