WELLNESS
02/02/2016 11:33 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2017

Heart Disease Matters More for Women Than You Think

By Ann Luk, Digital Program Manager, GoSpreadtheWord.com and CardioDx in collaboration with Society for Women's Health Research

In 2015, approximately 370,000 Americans died from heart disease. That's one in seven deaths. In the time it takes for you to read this article, two more people will die [1]. These statistics are alarming, so what can YOU do? We have an answer: Recognize American Heart Month this February by learning about the signs of coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common form of heart disease. Find out whether that huffing and puffing you experience while walking up the stairs is a sign that you might be a little out of shape -- or a sign of CAD.

One such story of CAD is that of Theresa Miller, a 49-year-old California native and mother of two. Miller's story is a reflection of what thousands of Americans experience each year. She shares her heart disease story with us here:

Miller kept heart disease in the back of her mind for many years. As she approached her fiftieth birthday, she felt haunted by her family's history of heart disease.

"My father had heart disease at a young age," Miller said. "His father died of a heart attack at age 51; my uncle died of a heart attack in his fifties. I didn't want to be the recipient of that legacy."

As a manager of a medical clinic in southern California, Miller makes her living helping patients live healthier lives. She holds herself to the same health standards by actively volunteering in the community and playing golf recreationally and competitively. One day, Miller noticed she started to feel out of breath and strangely fatigued when she hadn't before, like when walking the 18-hole courses and climbing hills.

Working in healthcare, Miller knew the dangers of heart disease. It's the number one cause of death in women, killing more than all cancers -- including breast cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer -- combined [2]. She also knew that her age put her at higher risk, as the likelihood of heart disease increases with age, spiking after menopause.

For Miller, it was the fatigue that really caused her concern. She knew that women often don't experience the same symptoms that men do.

"[Women] have palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue," Miller said. "Men have that stabbing [chest] pain, that down-your-arm kind of thing that women just don't have."

She's right. In fact, women typically overlook heart disease because these less-common warning signs can seemingly stem from less serious conditions, like heartburn or stress, when the core problem may actually stem from a blockage in the heart arteries or CAD.

"I didn't know if it was heart-related, so I wanted an answer," Miller said.

Miller went to her doctor, who explained that there are many tests for heart disease, each with their own benefits and risks.

Take for example a common test for CAD, called a nuclear stress test (or myocardial perfusion imaging scan). While regarded in the medical community as the "gold standard" for CAD diagnosis, it carries the risk of radiation exposure and all the dangers that it can bring. In fact, just one nuclear stress test can expose a woman to 39 mammograms' worth of radiation -- radiation that can increase a woman's risk of cancer [3].

Not to mention that most common CAD imaging tests are better designed for male bodies. Women have more breast tissue and smaller heart arteries than men do, which can affect the reading of common CAD imaging tests. This can lead to unnecessary repeat tests that may expose women to more risks, not to mention more costs [4].

There is a simple blood test that can help health care providers quickly, accurately and safely rule out obstructive coronary artery disease within just a few days and -- bonus! -- takes into consideration the cardiovascular differences between men and women. After evaluating Miller's symptoms and family history, her doctor recommended a sex-specific blood test called Corus CAD.

"Women and men are biologically different," Miller said. "We experience symptoms differently for almost every disease. Heart disease is no different. It was important for me to be [evaluated] as a woman."

It was also important to Miller to have the least invasive option. "A blood test seemed so simple and fast that it was definitely the highest on my list," Miller said.

Miller's test came back with a low score, which meant that she had a low likelihood of having significant blockage in her heart arteries. Both she and her doctor felt confident that she didn't need to spend time and money on further imaging tests.

"I was so relieved to know that I wasn't going to have a heart attack if I went out and exercised," Miller said. "I was just out of shape."

The test results didn't stop Miller from challenging herself to stay healthy and CAD-free. With her family's long-standing record of heart disease, she says the next steps are exercising regularly, sleeping well, and continuing the nutritional path she's discussed with her doctor.
"I feel fantastic. I'm walking more. I'm living life. I'm going on a cruise."

Her advice? "If you're having symptoms, palpitations, chest pain, pressure, those little things, even if you are short of breath, if you're fatigued -- these could be signs of coronary artery disease," Miller said. "Get checked just to know for your own peace of mind... It's worth the effort. It's worth the time. And it's so simple and easy to do."

Miller supports the Go Spread the Word campaign, an initiative by CardioDx, Society for Women's Health Research, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health, and HealthyWomen to encourage and empower women to identify signs of CAD and to increase awareness about the various testing options for women. Visit GoSpreadtheWord.com for resources including a symptom checklist and comparison chart of CAD testing options.

The Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR®) is a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that is widely recognized as the thought-leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease and is dedicated to transforming women's health through science, advocacy, and education. In 2009, SWHR launched the Interdisciplinary Network on Cardiovascular Disease. Learn more about the network here, and find more resources on heart disease and CAD at www.swhr.org.

CardioDx, Inc., is a molecular diagnostics company specializing in cardiovascular genomics that is committed to developing clinically validated tests that empower clinicians to better tailor care to each individual patient. Strategically focused on coronary artery disease, CardioDx is committed to expanding patient access and improving healthcare quality and efficiency through the commercialization of genomic technologies. Learn more about CAD in women here, and learn more about CardioDx at www.cardiodx.com.

References:
1. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics--2015 Update: A Report from the American Heart Association. Available at http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/131/4/e29.full. Last accessed on January 19, 2016.
2. American Heart Association. Heart Disease, Stroke and Research Statistics At-a-Glance. Available at http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/ahamah-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_480086.pdf. Last accessed on January 19, 2016.
3. Exposure to Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation From Medical Imaging Procedures. Available at http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0901249. Last accessed January 26, 2016.
4. Meta-Analysis of Exercise Testing to Detect Coronary Artery Disease in Women. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10080415. Last accessed January 26, 2016.