Research on heart disease has tended to focus on men, but women have hearts, too.

That's why the American Heart Association now holds an annual meeting focusing on women and the heart. Here are some highlights from the AHA's Second International Women's Conference, held Feb. 16-19 in Orlando, Fla.

Why Aren't Women Taking Aspirin for Their Hearts?

More than half of women with heart disease don't take aspirin -- even though the American Heart Association recommends aspirin for everyone who has heart disease or has had a stroke.

Jeffrey Berger, MD, chief resident at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, and colleagues analyzed data on 1,364 women who had suffered a stroke. Only 43 percent of them were taking aspirin. The study also included 2,230 female heart attack survivors. A little more than half of those women (54 percent) were taking aspirin for their hearts.

Women were more likely to take aspirin for heart disease if they were older, college educated, white, and lived in the Northeast. The likelihood dropped for women who used Medicaid insurance, were black, or lived in the South or West.

Women (and men) should consult their doctors before taking aspirin regularly. Health care providers can determine whether patients are good candidates for aspirin treatment and determine the right dose.

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Are Women's Heart Attack Symptoms Different Than Men's?

Even if you are taking aspirin, it's possible to have a heart attack. The key to survival is early treatment -- and that means getting help at the first sign of trouble.

There are classic symptoms, like chest pain, but there may also be unusual symptoms, such as indigestion.

Both men and women can have classic heart attack symptoms and both can have less-classic symptoms. But there are differences.

People may have mistaken beliefs about heart attack differences in men and women, say Jill Quinn and Kathleen King of the University of Rochester's nursing school in New York.

Quinn and King studied 41 women and 59 men who had suffered heart attacks. Here's how the participants described their heart attack symptoms:

--Pain, shortness of breath, fatigue. (No gender differences)

--Right-side chest discomfort (4.7 times more likely to be reported by men)

--Throat discomfort (12 times more likely to be reported by women)

--Discomfort (2.7 times more likely to be reported by men)

--Dull ache.3.9 times more likely to be reported by men Pressing on the chest.7.3 times more likely to be reported by women Vomiting.3.9 times more likely to be reported by women Indigestion.3.7 times more likely to be reported by men

Men were also five times more likely than women to recognize their symptoms as being related to their heart.

Men took about three hours, on average, before seeking help. Women waited even longer -- four hours, on average. Of course, that's extremely dangerous. It's vital to get help at the first sign of a heart attack. Don't wait, even if you're not sure what's going on; let doctors figure that out.

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Women's Chest Pain Treatments Getting Better

Women waiting longer to call a doctor is only part of the problem. In the past, women who saw a doctor for chest pain got much worse care than men treated for chest pain.

Things seem to be changing -- but women still lag behind, reports Shu-fen Wung, PhD, a nursing professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Wung studied 102 men and 29 women discharged from two hospitals after having heart-related chest pain. Women were prescribed medicines to treat heart disease, such as aspirin and beta-blockers, just as often as men -- and were significantly more likely to get highly effective new cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.

But women's heart treatment is still not optimal. Nearly one in five women did not get any prescription at all, Wung found.

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Unemployed Women Face Higher Heart Disease Risk

It's a bad idea to wait until you get chest pain -- or worse -- before you cut down on your risk of heart disease. But now women have one less risk factor to worry about: their job.

A CDC study suggests that working women have less heart disease than women who work only in the home.

Sheree Marshall-Williams, PhD, led the study of more than 34,800 U.S. women aged 25 to 64.

Homemakers’ health was much like that of employed women -- except for heart disease.

Heart disease was 1.7 times higher among homemakers compared with employed women, Marshall-Williams reports. "It may be that employed women have more access in the workplace to health intervention such as screening for high blood pressure and stress-reduction programs. That may be one protective factor for women."

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When Marriage Hurts a Heart

A good job helps your health -- and so does a good relationship. A 10-year study of 3,000 men and women aged 18 to 77 shows that stressful marriages endanger women's hearts.

Lead researcher Elaine Eaker, ScD, of Wisconsin-based Eaker Epidemiology Enterprises reports that the women at highest risk of bad health were those who hushed up when conflicts arose with their spouse. They said they usually or always silenced themselves in such situations.

Those women might have thought they were keeping the peace, but they paid dearly for it. Women who kept mum in marital conflicts had four times the risk of dying during the study compared with women who spoke their minds.

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Meditation May Cut Future Heart Disease Risks

Not every kind of silence is harmful. Peaceful meditation is good for your health -- even if you are a teenager, find Frank Treiber, PhD, and colleagues at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

The study looked at 36 black 16-year-olds with high blood pressure -- putting them at high risk of future heart disease. Half of the girls were taught transcendental meditation, and half received standard health education.

After four months, the meditation group had "improved significantly" its blood vessel function compared with the group which received health education only, say the researchers. Abnormal blood vessel function is an early sign of possible bad things to come for the heart.

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By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: “Why Aren’t Women Taking Aspirin for Heart?” WebMD Medical News: “Men vs. Women: Confusion Over Heart Symptoms.” WebMD Medical News: “Women’s Chest Pain Treatments Getting Better.” WebMD Medical News: “Unemployed Women Face Higher Heart Disease Risk.” WebMD Medical News: “When Marriage Can Hurt a Heart.” WebMD Medical News: “Meditation May Cut Future Heart Disease Risks.”