When Lying Can Be Good for Your Heart

05/01/2015 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016
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Did you know that lying about your heart symptoms could save your life? It's called the "Yentl syndrome" and it was coined in 1991 by then-NIH Director Dr. Bernadine Healy. It describes how women had to misrepresent their symptoms to get the same life-saving heart treatment as men.

Turns out that the syndrome still exists. Men's heart health is improving, but women in the U.S. are dying from heart disease at an alarming rate. In fact, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for women, killing more women each year than all of the cancers combined.

And the reasons are gender-based: misinformation, misdiagnosis, and mistreatment. A 2014 survey shows that an alarming 45 percent of women ages 25-60 don't know heart disease is their number one killer. Some doctors are unversed with the different symptoms women experience, such as the nausea, backache, jaw pain, extreme fatigue or shortness of breath that are women's signs of heart attack, rather than the crushing chest pain that men first experience. Treatment options are based on medical research conducted on men; only 24 percent of participants in all heart-related studies are women.

I had the pleasure this week to attend a dinner hosted by the heart of Washington, Esther Coopersmith, to honor Barbra Streisand and celebrate the Women's Heart Alliance, which Streisand co-founded. She spoke passionately about the Alliance's awareness campaign, "Fight the Lady Killer." The campaign builds on the research of organizations like the Society for Women's Health Research which has consistently promoted research on the sex differences in disease and disorders. The "Fight the Lady Killer" campaign includes raising awareness among women and their doctors, more money for research, and investments in treatment geared toward women.


Heart disease is not just a health issue; it's an economic one as well. The impact of heart disease poses a significant threat to women's economic security. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2010, the total costs of cardiovascular diseases in the United States were estimated to be $444 billion. Treatment of these diseases accounts for about $1 of every $6 spent on health care in this country. With women still too often under-employed or underpaid, serious illness has a disproportionate impact on them, easily undermining their and their families' finances. The national economy pays a double price: it overloads our health care system and takes valuable resources out of the workforce.

Next week, OWL will be releasing a report highlighting the economic contributions women entrepreneurs are making to our economy. It also examines the gender gap they face getting access to the $30 billion in venture capital invested each year. In 2013, women received a mere 7 percent of those funds.

I was struck by the similarities between the investment gender gap and the gender based barriers in diagnosing and treating heart disease. For one example, a number of male investors pride themselves in "knowing" what a successful entrepreneur looks like -- a man. It turns out many doctors are convinced they "know" what a heart attack looks like -- a guy clutching his chest.

The good news in the venture capital world is that pressure is mounting from inside and outside the industry to change. One of the factors was the front-page stories covering the trial over Ellen Pao's accusation of gender discrimination against the VC firm where she worked. She lost, but many believe the conversations surrounding the case moved the needle.

"Fight the Lady Killer" is poised to have a similar impact on women's heart disease. Barbra Streisand brings together that rare combination of dedication, resources and political intelligence -- she makes it clear that, despite her personal politics, this must be a nonpartisan issue.

When Barbra Streisand uses her remarkable voice to talk about the absurdity of a singular approach to treating a disease that expresses vastly different symptoms in women than it does in men, to urge lawmakers to increase the National Institutes of Health budget dedicated to women's heart health, to remind us that heart disease kills 1-in-3 women a year and that we can and must act, people listen -- and act.

As we prepare to celebrate "Mothering Sunday," remembering those women who have nurtured us along our path, one way to honor them is to make sure they avoid -- or survive -- heart disease.