(Toronto) — When it comes to heart and brain health, women have been under-researched for too long, but that’s starting to change. The 2020 Heart & Stroke Spotlight on Women: A fighting chance, delves into highly promising research advances. It focuses on the stories of three women with life-threatening diagnoses, and how new research can transform their lives as they face sex and gender challenges.
Momentum is building
“Women are not small men. There are real biological differences between the sexes, and not just the obvious ones. Women’s hearts are smaller, with smaller coronary arteries, and plaque builds up in their blood vessels differently,” says Anne Simard, Chief Mission and Research Officer, Heart & Stroke. “By investing in research focused on women, we are gaining the knowledge to save more lives and create better outcomes.”
“But much remains to be done,” adds Simard. “Women are still paying too high a price for gaps in research, prevention, diagnosis and treatment.”
A drug to slow or stop valve disease
Jennifer Michaud was born with aortic stenosis. At 29, surgery saved her life but left her exhausted and in pain for months. If the drug proves successful, women like Jennifer might be able to postpone or even avoid surgery altogether, critical because women are 25% more likely than men to die after aortic valve surgery.
Dr. Marie-Annick Clavel, a Heart & Stroke funded researcher from the Université Laval, is working on a drug that targets the most common cause of aortic stenosis in women. “The goal of my research is to reduce the progression of aortic stenosis; to stop the progression if we’re lucky; and to reverse the progression if we’re amazingly lucky,” says Dr. Clavel.
New clues to stop a killer of young women
Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), is the most common cause of pregnancy-associated heart attacks, and it disproportionately strikes young and otherwise healthy women. Sudi Barre was giving birth to her son by emergency c-section when she suffered a heart attack caused by SCAD. She is now speaking up about her experience because she wants more doctors to recognize SCAD.
Dr. Jacqueline Saw at the University of British Columbia, a leading expert on SCAD, says she has seen “horror stories” of women in their 30s or 40s turned away from the ER despite heart attack symptoms. Dr. Saw has developed a way of helping doctors detect SCAD, and with support from Heart & Stroke, her team has identified genes that increase the risk of SCAD. Within the next five years, she expects to see genetic screening tools, much better rates of diagnosis and better treatment protocols.
Missed or dismissed
It took nearly a year before Karen Narraway was diagnosed with heart disease requiring quadruple bypass surgery. Afterwards, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a former cardiac nurse, Karen was not surprised at the physical recovery, but she didn’t expect the mental and emotional struggles she would face. Depression strikes women with heart conditions nearly twice as often as men. It increases the risk of a heart attack and increases the chances that an attack will be fatal. And for survivors, it slows recovery.
Karen’s story does not come as a surprise to Dr. Paula Harvey at Women’s College Hospital. Her own research found nearly 40% of female patients experience depression after a cardiac event, half with moderate or severe symptoms, yet they were not getting treatment. “It’s really important that women are heard. There are a lot of things that remain unanswered and that need to be researched,” says Dr. Harvey.
Two years ago, Heart & Stroke launched its women’s campaign, aimed at closing the research gap between men and women. Heart disease and stroke are the #1 cause of premature death for women but two-thirds of clinical research is based on men. With the support of donors who have stepped up to fund this cause, Heart & Stroke has made significant changes to address this gap:
- Twenty-seven scientists will share a total of $4.3 million over five years for research competitions focused on women specific topics.
- A mandate that requires all Heart & Stroke funded research consider sex and gender-based analysis and reporting (SGBAR), if applicable.
- A national research network of scientists and people with lived experience of heart disease and stroke is working to advance knowledge about women’s heart and brain health.
See the full report, A fighting chance, at www.heartandstroke.ca/mediacentre
- Women are 10x more likely to die from heart disease, stroke and related vascular conditions than from breast cancer
- Heart attacks are more deadly for women, and women are more likely to suffer a second heart attack than men. Pregnancy, menopause and hormonal changes affect women’s risk.
- Eighty-eight per cent of SCAD patients are women, many young and otherwise healthy.
- Gender-based differences such as lower socio-economic status, the myth that heart disease is a ‘man’s disease and a tendency to dismiss women’s symptoms as anxiety also affect women’s health.
For more information:
Sr. Manager, Communications – Brand and Fundraising
About Heart & Stroke
Life. We don’t want you to miss it. That’s why Heart & Stroke leads the fight against heart disease and stroke. We must generate the next medical breakthroughs, so people in Canada don’t miss out on precious moments. Together, we are working to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery through research, health promotion and public policy.