Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans, both men and women? And did you know that heart disease is responsible for one out of every five female deaths – more than all forms of cancer combined? To fight back against this threat to women’s health, Inova has brought together a team of experts in the Inova Women’s Cardiovascular Health program.
One reason that women face such serious heart disease risks is that historically, research into cardiovascular disease was mostly focused on men. When studies did include women as well, the results were not separated by gender. This made it more difficult for researchers to recognize that there are big differences in the way women’s hearts function over their lifetimes – and that has led to worse outcomes nationwide.
“We know that women are less likely to get percutaneous coronary intervention for coronary artery disease and are less likely to get guideline-directed therapy. In the ER, they tend to wait longer for basic lab tests,” said Garima Sharma, MD, a nationally recognized expert in women’s cardiovascular health who has joined Inova as Director of Cardio-Obstetrics and Director of Cardiovascular Women’s Health.
How women’s hearts are different
Women’s hearts differ from men’s in both structure and function. Many sex-specific disorders that affect women have potential cardiovascular effects as well. They include preeclampsia, preterm birth, gestational diabetes, early menopause, polycystic ovarian syndrome and ovarian failure. Women’s cardiovascular health risks also change over the course of their lives, as they intersect, for example, with the hormonal changes that take place during pregnancy, the postpartum period, perimenopause and menopause.
Sex and gender also play a different role in women’s coronary artery disease. “Structurally, heart disease in women can be different than in men,” Dr. Sharma said. For example, more women than men have spontaneous coronary artery dissection, microvascular angina and a specific type of heart failure (called “heart failure with preserved ejection fraction”).
“This program allows us to focus on the care of women across their lives by providing personalized, integrated care,” Dr. Sharma said.
A program focused on women’s unique heart health needs
At Inova Women’s Cardiovascular Health, the team assists women with:
- Early detection and risk factor assessment
- Understanding how heart disease presents differently in women
- Management of risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol
- Pregnancy-related complications
- Effects of menopause and inflammatory diseases on the heart
- Specialized services for cardiotoxicity from cancer therapies and types of cardiovascular disease more prevalent in women
Propelling future research into women’s cardiovascular health
In addition to caring for women with, or at risk of developing, cardiovascular disease, Inova Women’s Cardiovascular Health aims to advance research to investigate the links between disorders affecting women and women’s cardiovascular health. The program will also partner with other research efforts across Inova Schar Heart and Vascular to enroll more women in cardiac research across Inova and to include sex and gender distinctions in data analysis.
“We’re building a multifaceted, team-based approach to providing personalized care for each patient,” Dr. Sharma said.
Dr. Sharma’s heart health advice for women
- Be your own advocate – If you don’t feel well, advocate for yourself or get a family member to help.
- Take your health seriously – “Women are the backbones of their families and provide intergenerational care – but they don’t always focus on themselves,” Dr. Sharma said.
- Know your numbers – From your blood pressure to your blood sugar, know what your current health-related numbers are and what they mean. Focus on “Life’s Essential 8” as defined by the American Heart Association to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Learn more about the Inova Women’s Cardiovascular Health program