Researchers at the University of Leeds and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden analysed data from 180,368 Swedish people on the country’s online cardiac registry and found irregularities in the way women and men were treated.
The analysis revealed that women were less likely to receive recommended treatments after experiencing heart attacks, which proved life-threatening in the long-run. In fact, women were up to three times more likely to die than men in the year after having a heart attack.
While the analysis uses Swedish data, treatment guidelines for patients who have suffered from a heart attack are comparable across Europe and, worryingly, researchers believe the situation for women in the UK could be worse.
Study co-author Professor Chris Gale, from the University of Leeds, said: “Sweden is a leader in healthcare, with one of the lowest mortality rates from heart attacks, yet we still see this disparity in treatment and outcomes between men and women. In all likelihood, the situation for women in the UK may be worse.”
Why are women more likely to die after suffering a heart attack?
Emily McGrath, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), told HuffPost UK that women are less likely to seek help than men if they experience symptoms of heart attack, which can prove problematic.
“Symptoms can vary from person to person and women are less likely to recognise symptoms,” she said. “For example they might mistake a heart attack as indigestion, as the symptoms can feel very similar.
“Indigestion-like pain can make it difficult to determine whether it’s a heart attack or not. People may also feel sick, sweaty, short of breath and light-headed.”
The most common symptom of heart attack is chest pain or discomfort. “It often feels like heavy pain,” said Emily. “Pain can radiate to the arms, neck, jaw and back. You might experience pain down one side of the body or both. It doesn’t necessarily happen on the left side, which some people believe.”
Another reason for the increased deaths may be due to stereotypes of heart attack sufferers, held by patients and doctors alike.
Prof Gale explained: “Typically, when we think of a heart attack patient, we see a middle-aged man who is overweight, has diabetes and smokes. This is not always the case; heart attacks affect the wider spectrum of the population – including women.”
There is also the matter of treatment after a heart attack, which - in Sweden at least - appeared to be insufficient for many women.
Women who had a STEMI, where the coronary artery is completely blocked by a blood clot, were 34% less likely than men to receive procedures which cleared blocked arteries and restored blood flow to the heart, including bypass surgery and stents.
They were also 24% less likely to be prescribed statins, which help to prevent a second heart attack, and 16% less likely to be given aspirin, which can prevent blood clots.
Critically, when women received all of the treatments recommended for patients who suffered heart attacks, the gap in deaths between the sexes decreased dramatically.
Previous BHF research has shown that women are 50% more likely than men to receive the wrong initial diagnosis and are less likely to get a pre-hospital ECG - a test that checks the heart’s rhythm and electrical activity - which is essential for swift diagnosis and treatment.
Prof Gale concluded: “The findings from this study suggest that there are clear and simple ways to improve the outcomes of women who have a heart attack – we must ensure equal provision of evidence-based treatments for women.”
Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Heart attacks are often seen as a male health issue, but more women die from coronary heart disease than breast cancer in the UK.
“The findings from this research are concerning – women are dying because they are not receiving proven treatments to save lives after a heart attack.
“We urgently need to raise awareness of this issue as it’s something that can be easily changed. By simply ensuring more women receive the recommended treatments, we’ll be able to help more families avoid the heartbreak of losing a loved one to heart disease.”
The research was part-funded by the BHF and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.