For years, those involved in cardiac care viewed the diagnosis and treatment procedures for cardiovascular disease as applicable to both men and women.

This is despite the fact that heart disease kills 200,000 women each year, five times the rate of breast cancer.

Today, thanks in part to physiology, physicians know that instead of developing blockages in the arteries supplying blood to the heart, women accumulate plaque more evenly inside the major arteries and in smaller blood vessels.

This condition, which appears to be particularly common in younger women, can be as dangerous as the better-known form of the disease.

This and other new cardiovascular research findings are just one of the outcomes resulting from the revolution in gender studies in physiology. Cardiovascular disease and other gender-specific conditions – such as menopause, pregnancy, depression, and obesity – was tackled in a conference sponsored by the American Physiology Society.

This was supported by the American Heart Association and Society for Women’s Health Research.

The conference was organized by Jane F Reckelhoff, Ph.D., Billy S. Guyton Distinguished Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at UMMC and director of the Women’s Health Research Center.

The presentations revealed changes in understanding the role that sex and gender plays in cardiovascular health. Discoveries in the last 10-15 years include:

• A daily aspirin regimen for men helps protect against heart attacks but offers no protection for women. On the other hand that same aspirin will protect women against strokes but has no such capability for men.

• Women generally have lower rates of hypertension or high blood pressure before menopause. After menopause, hypertension rates for women spike dramatically.

• Hypertension in women is less well controlled. This occurs despite proven evidence that women are more compliant in taking their prescribed medication.