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Barbra Streisand

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Why Heart Disease Is Treated Like a Boys' Club

Posted: 11/15/10 02:32 PM ET

Women have broken through some of the hardest glass ceilings. We've had women explore the depths of outer space, a woman run for President of the United States, and we've had a woman serving as Speaker of the House, a position that is just two heartbeats away from the Presidency. Many consider politics as one of the last bastions of the boys club and thankfully -- although slowly -- women are finally making real inroads.

But there is another boys club that until recently many people either didn't know about or talk about. It came as a big shock to me to discover that gender inequality still prevails in the medical sciences when it comes to research and treatment of some illnesses. I consider myself a well-informed person, but I only became aware of this fact when learning about women and heart disease, and I was stunned.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in our country, more than all cancers combined. Today, heart disease kills more women than men. When I started to think about this, it was not surprising. More women are taking on the stresses of juggling household demands, of being wife, mother and breadwinner. All of these modern day strains add to higher blood pressure, lack of physical activity, quick and unhealthy food choices, and weight gain -- all major contributors to heart disease.

Despite the statistics, for years, most of the medical community has been treating our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and friends inadequately because they based their treatment protocols on research outcomes done mostly on male patients. Cardiologists treating women certainly intended to provide their patients with quality care, but they could only depend on the research that was available and known to them.

In 1991, Dr. Bernadine Healy, the first woman director of the US National Institute of Health, studied the gender bias in the treatment of coronary heart disease. Termed the Yentl syndrome (a surprising coincidence), the study revealed that "once a woman showed that she was just like a man by having severe coronary artery disease, she was then treated as a man would be." This would make sense if women's hearts were biologically the same as men's hearts -- but they aren't! And because of the biological differences, heart attacks present differently in women than they do in men. Instead of the classic attack -- clutching a painful chest -- women often have indigestion and fatigue. Plus, women are more likely than men to develop micro-vascular disease, which affects the heart's smallest arteries.

We can no longer afford to naively assume that this is only a man's disease -- it's now a woman's epidemic. We may be almost 50 years behind in our research knowledge that informs diagnosis and treatment regimens for women with heart disease, but we are finally starting to close that gap. The Women's Heart Center at Cedars Sinai Medical Institute is helping to lead the way in this effort as one of few institutions in the country on the cutting edge of this research. The Center is led by Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, a Harvard Medical School graduate. Dr. Merz has published over 180 scientific publications and more than 200 abstracts and has received numerous awards recognizing her as one of the field's leading experts on preventive cardiology, women's heart disease and mental stress. It was clear to me that I had to get involved when I heard that this brilliant woman was doing lifesaving work that would ultimately impact women all over the world -- right in my own backyard!

But it's all of our responsibilities to be advocates on this issue and to demand that gender inequality, especially when it comes to life and death issues, is not acceptable. This is a call to action and I hope you all will join me in supporting the new and vital work that is being done on women's heart health. If you want to learn more, visit: CrowdRise.com/barbrastreisand