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A Passion for Women's Heart Health

Doctors and patients need to pay more attention to a neglected topic

In medical school, you're so busy learning the basics that it's hard to focus on specific issues in healthcare. But as I specialized in cardiology here at Baylor 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 discussing heart disease in women, I see that people are surprised to learn that it is still the number one cause of death in women. So many women believe it is breast cancer because they don't know the data. They don't think they'll ever have heart problems because that's a disease of men.

For a while, they're partially right. Earlier in their lives, the risk of heart disease is higher for men, but once a woman goes through menopause that risk starts to equal that of men and we catch up quickly.

So the first step is to raise awareness among patients and among primary care doctors who refer patients to cardiologists. That will help us do a better job on prevention.

Heart disease in women can manifest itself differently than in men, with different symptoms. Women can have underlying symptoms that are sometimes attributable to something else, and we need to weed out that bias.

We need to do more and better proactive screening for heart disease in women, particularly among women who are younger and have significant family history. That's a significant subset of the population that we don't screen very well. That can mean stress tests, scans for calcium buildup that can 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. 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 having an impact.

As a daughter, then a wife, then a 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.

Some of the gaps that remain are disheartening, but there is a lot of passion out there to make progress. I'm proud to be part of that, teaching and working with doctors and patients to stress how important this is.

Anumeha Tandon, MD, is a clinical cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.



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