A 2019 study from Circulation journal has revealed a troubling trend: More and more women are having heart attacks at younger ages.
The study’s finding on its own is concerning, but it’s even more puzzling when put into context. Thanks to improved prevention and treatment efforts, heart disease rates have been *declining* since 1990 in most other demographics (although heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States).
The study examined the trends of hospitalizations due to heart attacks. Between 1995 and 1999, women aged 35 to 54 accounted for 21 percent of heart attack hospitalizations; between 2010 and 2014, that percentage raised to 31 percent. (Meanwhile, men in the same group only rose from 30 percent to 33 percent in the same time periods.)
What’s Behind the Trend?
Researchers have come up with a few potential reasons heart attacks are on the rise among younger women. Compared to their male counterparts, young women with heart attacks are more likely to:
Have medical risk factors such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and a history of stroke. (Learn more here about how stroke is on the rise among young adults.)
Experience financial stress or be unemployed, possibly due to the gender pay gap or expectations for mothers.
Be unmarried, which can result in financial stress, especially for single moms.
Have a lifetime history of depression. (Find out more about the link between depression and heart disease here.)
And report poor social support systems. The health benefits of social support can provide a buffer against both mental and physical illness.
Despite the fact that many younger women present these risk factors, doctors are actually *less* likely to discuss heart disease with their female patients—including how to manage their risk or how to recognize the symptoms.
As a result, many women with risk factors for heart disease and heart attack do not realize they’re at risk, and are thus less likely to make crucial, heart-healthy lifestyle changes to prevent a heart attack.
What’s more, when women *do* have heart attacks, they often experience “atypical” symptoms (compared to men). While both men and women may feel chest pain during a heart attack, many women may feel fatigue, nausea, or shortness of breath instead. Learn more about symptoms of heart disease for women here.
Since they don’t recognize the early warning signs, many women are less likely to seek early intervention that can prevent the heart attack or improve the outcomes.
Regardless of your age, it’s important to take control of your own health and know your numbers for a healthy heart, such as your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. You don’t have to wait for your doctor to bring it up: Ask about your personal risk factors and how to manage them. Being an advocate for your own health could literally be a lifesaver.