New Study on American Women's Awareness of Heart Disease

By Rachel Walden — February 17, 2010

A new study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation looks at what American women know about the risks for cardiovascular disease and the barriers to disease prevention.

The researchers surveyed women ages 25 and older about their demographics, their knowledge about heart disease (including their awareness of heart disease as the leading cause of death for women), perceived risk factors and prevention strategies, their sources of information about heart disease, preventive actions taken in the last year and barriers to prevention. Findings were also compared to surveys on these topics conducted in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2006 to see how the responses have changed.

Among the results, 54% of respondents correctly identified heart disease/heart attack as the leading cause of death among women. However,  a disparity exists in this knowledge. Although awareness that heart disease/heart attack is the leading cause of death has doubled in white and Hispanic women and tripled among African American women since 1997, African American, Hispanic, and Asian women are still significantly less likely to be aware of this fact than white women.

Knowledge of heart attack warning signs had not increased significantly from the 1997 findings, with 56% of women correctly listing chest pain and neck, shoulder, and arm pain, 29% correctly identifying shortness of breath, and 17%, 15%, and 7% recognizing chest tightness, nausea, and fatigue, respectively. The authors also found that only 53% of women said they would call 911 if they were having heart attack symptoms; it’s usually recommended that people experiencing heart attack symptoms call 911 right away, even if they’re uncertain of whether they are really experiencing a heart attack.

The authors also noted that many women cited beliefs about effective methods of preventing heart disease that are not currently supported by the evidence, such as use of multivitamins (69%), antioxidants (70%), and special vitamins (58%, such as vitamin A, C, or E). 19% of women still reported a belief that hormone therapy was a useful preventive method, although this has declined from the 47% who held this belief in 1997 prior to the 2002 early halt to the Women’s Health Initiative trial and the accompanying warning that postmenopausal hormone therapy could actually increase cardiovascular risk.

Women reported numerous barriers to living a heart healthy lifestyle, including family obligations/caregiving (reported by 51% of respondents), confusion in the media about what they should be doing (42%), a belief that some higher power determines their health (37%), a lack of confidence in their ability to successfully change their behavior (33%), and a lack of money or health insurance (32%), among others less frequently reported. Lack of clear communication from health care providers (19%) and language barriers (8%) were also cited as concerns.

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