We need to improve proactive screening for heart disease in women

In medical school, you're so busy learning the basics that it can be hard to focus on specific issues in healthcare. But as I specialized in cardiology here at Baylor Scott & White Health and started my career as a physician, I realized there was one aspect of medicine where I wanted to make a difference: improving heart health in women.

The need is clear. In treating patients every day and speaking on panels to discuss heart disease in women, I’ve discovered people are surprised to learn heart disease is still the number one cause of death in women. Many women believe breast cancer is the leading cause of death, but that’s because they don't know the data. Many women don’t think they'll ever have heart problems since some believe it’s a man’s disease.

They're partially right for a bit of time. The risk of heart disease is higher for men earlier in life, but when a woman goes through menopause, their risk can quickly catch up.

The first step is raising awareness among patients and primary care doctors who refer patients to cardiologists. This improves prevention.

Heart disease in women can manifest itself with different symptoms compared to men. Women can have underlying symptoms that may be attributable to a different cause, and we need to weed out this bias.

We also need to do increase and improve proactive screenings for heart disease in women—particularly among younger women with a significant family history of it. That's a substantial subset of the population that isn’t screened well enough. Heart screening can mean stress tests, scans for calcium buildup that indicate heart disease in people without symptoms and controlling risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, weight and diabetes.

We're getting better at understanding that in heart-related matters, women have been underrepresented in clinical trials. But things are changing, and I'm optimistic. More and more women are studying medicine and specializing in cardiology. Organizations like the American Heart Association, whose Go Red for Women campaign focuses on these issues, are making an impact.

As a daughter, wife and mother, we tend to put others ahead of ourselves. But I see women—especially in the younger generation—getting more proactive about their own health. They're more attentive to themselves, and that's encouraging.

The remaining gaps are disheartening, but there is a lot of passion out there to drive progress. I'm proud to be a part of it by teaching and working with doctors and patients to stress its importance.

Anumeha Tandon, MD, is a clinical cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas.