News | February 15, 2007

Physicians Gather at Capitol Hill, Report on Discrepancies, Advances for Treating Heart Disease in Women

Feb. 16, 2007 — Congressional staff members were informed about the latest advances in cardiac care for women early this week. The Society for Women’s Health Research convened cardiovascular experts on Capitol Hill to report on leading edge imaging techniques and heart-assisting devices.

Despite technological gains in heart disease diagnosis and treatment, the experts said women are still under represented in heart studies and researchers do not regularly provide needed information about differences in the disease between women and men.

“The Society was first to focus attention on the incidence of heart disease in women, long thought of as a man’s disease,” said Phyllis Greenberger, M.S.W., president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research, a Washington, D.C., based advocacy organization. “While it is true that men generally suffer from heart disease at an earlier age, it was not recognized until recently that women suffer from heart disease in greater numbers than men later in life. As a result, women were often misdiagnosed, mistreated or ignored.

“Significant gains for women in heart disease have been made over the last 15 years, but a lot of work remains to be done,” Greenberger said.

Susan Bennett, M.D., clinical director of the Women’s Heart Program in the Cardiovascular Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reviewed the past 10 years of research on women and heart disease. Pointing to recently released data on cardiovascular deaths, Bennett said that the number of women dying from heart disease dropped 17,000 from 2003 to 2004.

“To put that in perspective, heart disease went from causing 33 percent of deaths to causing 25 percent of deaths in women,” Dr. Bennett said, “but heart disease is still the leading killer of American women.”

Bennett speculated that one reason why women have higher mortality rates with cardiovascular disease is because cardiac procedures and devices are severely under-utilized in women patients compared to men patients. Women receive only 40 percent of all cardiac catheterizations and only 20 percent of all implanted pacemakers. Bennett emphasized that health care professionals need to reduce current disparities between women and men and collect data so that better treatments can be developed.

Leslee Shaw, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., spoke about the dramatic improvements made in cardiovascular imaging.

According to Shaw, using a CT scan to detect calcium buildup in arteries is a great step in improving the detection of heart disease in women. “We know that women have smaller arteries, so it will take less calcium buildup to block those arteries,” Shaw said, than it would in men. “This test allows us to view the amount of calcium buildup to determine if a woman is at risk.”

Shaw discussed coronary computed tomography angiogram (CTA), which allow visualization of a patient’s heart from many angles. The images allow a cardiologist to see if calcium or plaque deposits have built up in the coronary arteries by rotating the images and viewing blockages from different perspectives. Shaw said the test is very promising, but there is no sex-specific data regarding women and the procedure, which prevents its optimal utilization.

Margarita Camacho, M.D., surgical director of the cardiac transplant and mechanical assist device program at the Saint Barnabas Heart Center at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, N.J., spoke about heart devices created for patients waiting for a heart transplant.

“With 400,000 heart disease patients waiting for new hearts and only 2,100 transplants being done, ventricular assist devices are a necessity for many patients,” Camacho said.

The briefing was designed to provide congressional staff members with information to support their healthcare policy work. The event was made possible with support from Abiomed, Edwards Lifesciences, GE Healthcare, and The Medicines Company.

Visit the Society’s Web site at www.womenshealthresearch.org for more information.

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