It may come as a surprise to many readers that the No. 1 killer of American women is a disease most associated with men — cardiovascular disease. And while all women face the threat of heart disease, the danger is much greater as women age. In fact, twice as many women in their 60s and 70s have cardiovascular disease compared to women in their 40s and 50s. It’s estimated that by 2012, 10,000 Americans will turn 65 years old every day, which will lead to a huge increase in health expenses related to cardiovascular disease.
The good news is that we now know that if we can get women, as well as men, to the age of 50 without developing risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight or smoking, then their risk of developing cardiovascular disease as they grow older is substantially lower. The bad news, however,
is that the percentage of American adults with any of these risk factors increased significantly in the past decade, which doesn’t bode well for the future. We must reverse this trend.
This year, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and I reintroduced the HEART for Women Act (H.R. 1032), bipartisan legislation that would help prevent cardiovascular disease in women through the early identification and control of their risk factors. The bill would expand the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WISEWOMAN free screening programs for low-income and uninsured women ages 40 to 64 to help them control risk factors for heart disease and stroke. If these programs become available in all states, it could help many women live longer, healthier lives.
The HEART for Women Act would also help to raise awareness among women and their health care providers about their risk for heart disease and stroke. Nearly 80 percent of women are unaware that heart disease is their greatest health risk. That’s very disturbing given the fact that more women die from cardiovascular diseases than the next five causes of death combined.
Surprisingly, many physicians are also unaware that cardiovascular diseases pose such a serious health threat to women. An American Heart Association survey found that only 8 percent of primary care physicians recognized that heart disease kills more women each year than men, something we’ve known since at least 1984. If doctors don’t realize that women are at risk, they are less likely to refer them for aggressive preventive screenings and treatment, which can reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke. And despite the fact that more women die of cardiovascular disease, they are less likely than men to receive certain diagnostic testing and treatments, such as angioplasties and stents.
But even when women and their doctors do recognize the need for aggressive treatment for heart disease and stroke, they may not know enough about whether the treatments available to them are as effective in women as they are in men or if age is a factor in a treatment’s effectiveness. About one-third of new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration do not provide sufficient information about the safety and effectiveness in women.
In order to obtain the medical data necessary to determine the most effective course of treatment, the HEART for Women Act would require that health care data that is already being reported to the federal government be stratified by gender, as well as by age and race. That includes clinical trial data, pharmaceutical and medical device approval data, medical errors data, hospital quality data and quality improvement data.
In my work as a public health nurse I’ve seen firsthand how simple steps to improve health awareness among female patients have motivated them to seek care. This enhanced health awareness has also helped health professionals improve the quality of care delivered. As a policymaker I’m committed to doing my part to assist both patients and health professionals as they tackle this deadly disease.
Ensuring that patients and health professionals know about the best care for patients’ unique needs and that they receive drugs and devices that have been proven to be safe and effective for them is a critical part of that effort. Our current health care delivery system is not as strong and effective as it should be when it comes to education and prevention, and this helps to undermine the overall quality of health care in America.
That’s why access to comprehensive preventive health services should be a top priority as we work to reform our country’s health care system. Not only is it critical to saving thousands of lives threatened by the nation’s No. 1 killer, but it will help to restore the health and economic future of our country.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) is a nurse who serves as the vice chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Heart and Stroke Coalition.