Researcher Studies Heart Disease in Women

Women with heart disease (search) experience symptoms different from those exhibited by men with the same condition, and a study at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is examining those differences.

Headed by Jean McSweeney, a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the study is a continuation of research McSweeney did on the early warning signs of heart disease. In that, she surveyed women who had had heart attacks and were treated at hospitals in Arkansas, North Carolina and Ohio.

Her current research, funded by a $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, differs from previous studies in that McSweeney is including women who have not yet had a heart attack. She said Monday that the two-year project will follow about 1,700 women in Arkansas and Kentucky who have been referred to a cardiologist.

The study will document the cardiac symptoms the women may develop in that two-year period.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that women were frequently included in medical studies "because we did assume that women would react just the same as men," McSweeney said.

But her previous studies have shown that some women have reported cardiac symptoms more than one month before a heart attack and the symptoms don't follow the textbook symptoms seen in men, such as chest pain, she said.

About 70 percent of women from her previous studies said they experienced unusual or unexplained fatigue before their heart attacks, a symptom commonly associated with depression, she said.

"Men seem to go in with chest pains and get treated immediately for heart disease," McSweeney said. "But if women go in with fatigue and shortness of breath, we often look other places for a diagnosis."

Other symptoms that women with acute heart disease have reported include sleep disturbance, indigestion, anxiety, headaches and vision changes, she said.

The goal of her work is awareness and prevention, McSweeney said. She said she hopes to provide doctors and insurance companies with a list of predictable symptoms that indicate heart disease in women. (search) Heart disease is the number one killer of women and kills more women than the seven most common types of cancer combined, McSweeney said. Still, only about 40 percent of women are aware of that statistic.