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Women gain in heart attacks

Middle-aged men still have higher rates of heart attacks and heart disease than middle-aged women, but gender differences appear to be narrowing, according to a new study.

The findings follow research, published in a 2007 issue of the journal Neurology, establishing that stroke prevalence among women 45 to 54 was double that of men of the same age. Together, the findings suggest "an ominous trend in cardiovascular health among midlife women," said the lead author of both studies, Dr. Amytis Towfighi, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Southern California.

The new study, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined national survey data from 1988-94 and 1999-2004. More than 4,000 men and women, 35 to 54, completed the surveys. Heart attack rates as well as scores from a measure used to predict the risk of an attack in 10 years were studied. This risk-assessment tool includes age, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and smoking history.

In both time periods, men had more attacks. But their rates improved from 2.5 percent in the earlier period to 2.2 in the second time frame; women's rates increased from 0.7 to 1 percent.

Men's cardiovascular risk factors improved or were stable over the two study periods. The only risk factor that improved in women was high-density lipoprotein levels, suggesting precursors to heart disease (high blood pressure and high cholesterol) are not assessed or treated as aggressively in women, Towfighi said.

A second paper published in the same journal, however, said some strides are being made in treating women's cardiovascular health. That study found survival rates after a heart attack improved between 1994 and 2006, with the biggest improvements seen in women.

Fast facts

Role of obesity

Women have been thought to be largely protected from heart attacks and stroke before menopause because of hormonal influences, Dr. Amytis Towfighi said. But the rising rate of obesity, which is higher in middle-aged women than middle-aged men, could undermine that natural benefit.

Women gain in heart attacks 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 12:15am]

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