By Marissa Bergman and Annabelle Santos Volgman, MD
Heart disease long was thought to be solely a men’s health concern, but it’s the No. 1 killer of women as well. In fact, 2013 was the first year since 1984 that fewer women died of heart disease than men. This decline was the result of the tireless work of a small group of women who have dedicated their lives to eradicating the misunderstanding and unequal treatment of women’s heart disease. Since March is Women’s History Month, it’s an apt time to look back on their lifesaving work.
Heart disease first came to medical prominence in 1948 with the start of the long-term, ongoing Framingham Heart Study — which now is in its third generation of subjects residing in the Massachusetts town for which the study is named. It was reported in 1955 that age and sex were clearly risk factors for heart attacks; men suffered from heart attacks as early as their 30s and 40s, while women seemingly were spared, because they had much less incidence and experienced heart attacks about ten years later than men.
By 1979, 30,000 more men were succumbing to heart disease than women, cementing the perception of heart disease as a men’s disease. As a result, medical attention was focused almost exclusively on men and their hearts — the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial started in 1974 only examined one sex.