Heart Disease in Women: Breast Cancer Takes a Back Seat

When it comes to women’s health, breast cancer tends to get more attention than heart disease. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat, but they’re wrong. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.  New research shows at least five times as many women die from heart disease as breast cancer and misconceptions about cardiovascular risks among women — and doctors who treat them — is partly to blame.

In a new study published in Global Heart, the journal of the World Heart Federation, researchers from Ohio State University found that awareness of women’s risks of developing coronary artery disease (CAD) has increased over the past decade, but men are still more aggressively treated at the first signs of the heart-related condition.

The research indicates CAD kills at least as many women as men each year, but doctors are less likely to recommend preventive measures for women, compared to men at risk for the condition — such as lowering cholesterol, taking aspirin, or making lifestyle changes in their dietary and exercise habits.

Heart disease is still largely considered a “man’s disease” by many women and doctors who should know better, according to lead researchers Martha Gulati, M.D., and Kavita Sharma, M.D. “One in three women get heart disease; one in two get heart disease or stroke, and one in eight get breast cancer,” states Dr. Gulati. “One in four women die from heart disease and one in 30 women die from breast cancer. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Lack of awareness is a [factor].”

According to the study, cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death for men and women worldwide, killing 8.6 million women alone each year. That’s one-third of all deaths in women.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease — including heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke — kills nearly a half-million women in the U.S. each year. That figure exceeds the next seven causes of death combined. More women die from CAD than of all cancers (including breast cancer, which kills about 40,000 women annually), respiratory conditions, Alzheimer’s disease, and accidents combined. Women are also 15 percent more likely than men to die of a heart attack and twice as likely to have a second heart attack in the six years following the first.

The researchers added that while most American women can identify breast cancer as a risk to their health, few can do the same for heart disease.

The new research highlights other differences between men’s and women’s heart risks:

  • Obesity (tied to lack of exercise and unhealthy diets) increases the risk of CAD by 64 percent in women but only 46 percent in men.
  • CT scans and other imaging techniques show that women have narrower coronary arteries than do men, which may account for the greater risks women face.
  • Women with an immediate family member who has had CAD face greater risks than men.
  • Diabetes raises a woman’s CAD risk by three to seven times, while for men it is two to three times.

The researchers said awareness of the impact of CAD on women is growing. In 1997, only 30 percent of American women surveyed were aware that the leading cause of death in women is heart disease. By 2009, that level of awareness had grown to 54 percent. But that figure still indicates many women mistakenly believe breast cancer is a bigger threat to their lives than heart disease. In addition, fewer than one in five physicians recognize that more women than men die each year from CAD.

Health experts recommend the following heart-healthy tips:

  • Diet: Consume at least five daily servings of fruit and vegetables; limit consumption of fried and fatty foods; buy lean, low-fat protein; and choose lower-fat and whole grain foods.


  • Exercise: Get at least 20-30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days a week (150 minutes weekly). That activity should be strenuous enough to increase your heart rate and make you break a sweat, but light enough that you can carry on a conversation.


  • Stress: Look for ways to lower your stress level through exercise, relaxation techniques, Yoga, swimming, or other activities.

Bottom line: Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of men and women and far more dangerous to women than breast cancer. Greater awareness is needed among patients and physicians about the prevalence of CVD in women. Following a “heart healthy” lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular death.


About the author: Raja P. Reddy, MD is a board certified diagnostic radiologist specializing in breast imaging. He is also a contributing editor for Digital Mammography