Heart disease affects men and women in different ways. In women, symptoms of burgeoning heart disease are often more insidious, but when a heart attack strikes, it is more lethal than it is in men.
Only 25 percent of men are expected to die within a year of their first heart attack as compared to 38 percent of women.
Women are twice as likely as men to have a second heart attack within 6 years of their first one, and women are twice as likely as men to die after bypass surgery.
Yet after a heart attack, women’s hearts are more likely to maintain their systolic function – their ability to contract and pump blood from the chambers into the arteries.
According to Bairey Merz, Director of the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, this suggests that heart disease manifests differently in women, affecting small blood vessels instead of the big ones.
Function Indicates Form
The heart is a muscle, and as with other muscles, depriving it of oxygen causes damage that diminishes its ability to function. Conventional wisdom notes that the most prevalent form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, in which atherosclerotic plaque narrows and eventually blocks the major arteries leading into the heart, thus cutting off the heart’s supply of oxygen. The damage to the heart tends to be permanent, and after a heart attack, the heart never quite regains its former power.
But when reviewing the medical literature, Merz and her colleagues found that women’s hearts were less likely than men’s to lose their ability to pump blood after a heart attack, and that female heart patients were less likely to present with obstructive coronary artery disease. Instead, the oxygen deprivation and subsequent damage to the heart is more likely to occur when small blood vessels, not major arteries, become dysfunctional.
The good news is that it is possible to measure damage to small blood vessels objectively. “The gold standard is reactivity testing, angiograms, and other physiologic measures, rather than anatomic study.”