Not all hearts are created equal. And that means the diseases that affect the heart aren’t, either.

For women, that’s a problem. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women, more lethal than all forms of cancer combined, including breast cancer. But the nature of cardiovascular diseases in women, along with the treatments for those diseases, have been woefully understudied.

“The concept of women and heart disease is a really new concept; research has only included women to even a mildly significant degree since about 2000,” says Dr. Deirdre Mattina, director of the Henry Ford Women’s Heart Center. “We have very little data, really, to show which medications are equally effective in women and men. Even today, most trials only have about 20-25 percent women in the trial.”

A fair bit of press has been given to the fact that women experiencing a heart attack may have different symptoms than those commonly associated with men. Typically, women are less likely than men to go from feeling fine one minute to clutching their chest and collapsing the next.

But Mattina notes that people report a broad array of symptoms that can be linked to heart disease, from tingling in their shoulder to an all-over feeling of being unwell.  

The Experience of Emotions

Another manifestation of heart trouble that primarily affects women is stress-induced cardiomyopathy — more commonly known as Broken Heart Syndrome. Occurring most often in postmenopausal women, the syndrome typically occurs after acute emotional distress, which can set off a physiological reaction that causes the heart’s pumping action to slow severely. The syndrome’s symptoms mimic a heart attack, so its sufferers are often sent for an angiogram, only to discover they have little or no heart disease.

“One of the things we know now is that the experience of emotions — it’s not just ‘in your head,’” says Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied the similarities between people’s experience of emotional and physical pain. “You can see how these emotions play out in your brain and how they play out physically as well. We shouldn’t ignore feelings of emotional distress just because people can’t point to a black-and-blue mark.

“We know that stress doesn’t just feel bad,” he adds. “We know what it does to your blood pressure, for example, quite directly. It can have implications for stress-hormone release, cellular aging — literally how your body is functioning.”  

Fortunately, nearly all people with Broken Heart Syndrome recover completely, and rarely suffer it twice. For those with the syndrome, stress reduction is critically important, Marcovitz says.

Read the full article "Battling Cardiovascular Disease" at Hour Detroit.