Behind the headlines

Do women die sooner than they should from heart attacks?

Daily Mail news on women

“Heart attacks cut five more years from women's lives than men's."

- Daily Mail 4 August 2015

The study was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in August 2015. It was led by Yale School of Medicine and Yale School of Public Health and was based on a study of 146,743 patients aged 65 to 90 who were treated in hospital for a heart attack in the United States in the mid-1990s. The average age was 76, and 48.1 per cent were women and 6.4 per cent were black.

Life expectancy after a heart attack was similar for men and women, but lower for black patients than white patients. But when the researchers looked at how long the patients would have been expected to live after the heart attack (because women usually live longer than men), they found that women lost 10.5 per cent more of their expected life than men, and that black people lost more 6.2 per cent of their life than white people.  

The report says: “After accounting for differences in expected survival, women lost significantly more years of life than men…For example, we estimated that 65-year-old white men and women are estimated to lose 5.1 and 10 years of life after AMI [acute myocardial infarction, ie a heart attack]”.

After accounting for differences in expected survival, women lost significantly more years of life than men

The authors found that differences in life expectancy between races could be explained by differences in treatment – either that black people attended lower-quality hospitals, or were less likely to receive the best care in hospital – and that they were more likely to have other health issues (such as heart failure or diabetes). But these issues did not explain the differences when it came to women.

This study was covered in the Daily Mail and other online news sources. The Mail said: “Scientists say that the findings could be linked to a difference in the quality of care patients receive.” But while that was true for race differences, there was no evidence that the differences in life expectancy between men and women were linked to differences in care. The study authors said this “suggests the need for additional research to understand this difference, which may be explained by either biological and psychosocial differences or other disparities in care. Strategies that warrant investigation include reducing the higher risk factor burden in women and improving long-term management of heart disease.”

The researchers acknowledge that the sample of black patients was relatively small, and that there may be other limitations in the study – for example, the differences in life expectancy following a heart attack may be due to other illnesses than coronary heart disease

This suggests the need for additional research to understand this difference

Techniques for treatment and care have also improved since the mid-1990s,which means that patients now are living longer, so the life expectancy differences may no longer be the same. The study says “Additionally, there have been several national efforts over the last two decades to increase awareness of heart disease in women and to reduce differences in health outcomes.”

This study is a reminder that coronary heart disease affects both men and women, so if you have symptoms, whether it’s classic chest pain or less “obvious” symptoms like pain in your arm, neck or jaw, or indigestion-like symptoms, it’s important to seek medical advice straight away. 

Maureen Talbot, our senior cardiac nurse, said: “This US study shows that gender and race could affect a patient’s life expectancy after suffering a heart attack, and emphasises the importance of appropriate care following such an event.

“This includes taking medicines as prescribed, focusing on the risk factors that contribute to heart disease, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, and attending a cardiac rehabilitation programme to raise awareness of how to live with a heart condition.

“Further research is needed to establish why some population groups may have a shorter life expectancy and whether this correlates to the UK population.”

More useful information