Women’s health concerns have historically been downplayed–and even dismissed–by physicians and other health care providers, largely as a result of implicit bias. Younger women, in particular, may not be taken as seriously when a real health issue arises, because they’re often considered to be beacons of health.
You may hold a similar bias without even realizing it. For example, you may find it hard to believe that heart disease deaths in younger women have increased over the past decade. A new study published in European Heart Journal–Quality of Care and Clinical Outcomes, a publication of the European Society of Cardiology, found that while death rates from cancer declined each year from 1999 to 2018, heart disease death rates have been on the rise since 2010.
“Cardiovascular disease mortality is going up in younger women, and if it continues at this rate, it may overtake cancer as the leading cause of death in young women,” Dr. Erin Michos, a senior researcher on the study and an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, told WebMD.
Why is this happening? Michos points out that young women in the U.S. are becoming less healthy, largely due to a higher prevalence of obesity in recent years. (Related: The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now).
“Women frequently put others’ health and needs before their own, often caring for children and parents and working full-time,” Michos said in a statement. “But if they have a fatal heart attack, they won’t be there for loved ones. Women must prioritize their own health, especially since heart disease is largely preventable.”
In the study, researchers compared death certificates from cancer to those from heart disease in women under the age of 65 over the near 20-year time frame. During that time, the age-adjusted mortality rates for cancer and heart disease were about 53 and 24 per 100,000 women. However, as cancer deaths declined and heart disease deaths increased, the gap between cancer and heart disease-related deaths decreased from 33 t0 23 per 100,000 per year.
“There’s still this misconception that women are at lower risk, especially if they’re before menopause. But this isn’t necessarily true—lower risk doesn’t mean no risk,” she told WebMD. “I think both doctors and women clearly underestimate the risk.”
Recent studies of young heart attack patients indicate that—compared to men—women were less likely to have been told they were at risk for heart disease before the attack. They’re also less likely to have received necessary medications or stents.
The main takeaway? As Michos (and other experts) says, women need to advocate for themselves when going to the doctor in order to make sure they’re getting the care they need.
Aside from that, most instances of heart disease can be avoided by making specific adjustments to your lifestyle, including eating a balanced diet, exercising more, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking.
For more tips, be sure to read Easy Ways You Can Prevent Heart Disease and Diabetes, According to a Registered Dietitian.