New Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in Women Emerging

Perla Miranda

September 19, 2023

Multiple emerging risk factors for cardiovascular disease in women must be recognized and assessed to provide timely diagnosis and treatment, according to Dipti N. Itchhaporia, MD, an interventional cardiologist in southern California. These risk factors include pregnancy complications, autoimmune diseases, depression, breast cancer, and breast arterial calcification.

During the session titled "Cardiac Care in Women: Emerging Risk Factors" at CardioAcademic 2023, the former president of the American College of Cardiology emphasized that gender equity in care for cardiovascular disease will only be achieved when risk factors are evaluated from a gender-dependent perspective and when assessments are broadened to include novel and unrecognized risk factors, not just traditional risk factors.

Itchhaporia also remarked that women and primary care clinicians must be educated on the symptoms of heart disease so that they can be on the alert and provide patients with comprehensive treatments when necessary.

"Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in women, at least in the United States, and globally the outlook is similar," she explained. "That's why we need to provide our patients with guidance and carefully investigate when they experience chest pain. We need to remember that smoking and obesity pose a higher risk for cardiovascular disease in women than in men. Taking these risk factors into account will really make a difference by allowing us to provide more timely and targeted care."

In her presentation, Itchhaporia noted that cardiovascular disease accounts for 35% of deaths in women worldwide. She reminded her audience that, according to The Lancet women and cardiovascular disease Commission, heart diseases in this population remain "understudied, underrecognized, underdiagnosed, and undertreated. Furthermore, women are underrepresented in cardiovascular [clinical practice]."

She mentioned this because, despite US legislation enacted between 1980 and 1990 that mandated the inclusion of women in clinical trials, women accounted for less than 39% of participants in cardiovascular clinical trials between 2010 and 2017. According to Itchhaporia, this situation limits the potential for developing tailored strategies and recommendations to treat the cardiovascular diseases affecting women..

Emerging Risk Factors

Itchhaporia pointed out that traditional risk factors have been known for many years. For example, 80% of women aged 75 years or younger have arterial hypertension. Only 29% receive adequate blood pressure control, those living with diabetes have a 45% greater risk of suffering ischemic heart disease, and obesity confers a 64% higher risk of developing ischemic heart disease in women vs 46% in men.

In addition to these factors, she noted that emerging factors must be assessed carefully. For example, women who experience pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes have a higher risk for ischemic heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Women with hypertension and preeclampsia are at a threefold higher risk of developing ischemic heart disease.

"Pregnancy can really be a major stress test for the heart, and I believe that as healthcare professionals, we should all be asking women if they have had pregnancy-related complications. I don't think that's something we've been doing on a regular basis. Statistically, we know that 10%–20% of pregnant women report complications during pregnancy, and strong associations have been shown between gestational hypertension [and] preeclampsia."

Itchhaporia explained that depression, a condition that globally affects women twice as much as men, is another emerging factor (though it has received some increased recognition). She explained that in women, depression is a significant risk factor for developing a major adverse cardiovascular event or a combined event of cardiac death and myocardial infarction related to the target lesion and revascularization of the target lesion due to ischemia. Furthermore, women who have experienced a cardiac-related event are more likely to have depression than men.

"If we look into it in more detail, depression leads to changes in behavioral habits and physiological mechanisms," she said. "Women living with depression are at higher risk of smoking, not exercising as much, are perhaps less careful with their hygiene, are not likely to adhere to their medications, and don't sleep as well. All this moves them in the direction of heart disease."

Added to these factors are autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus, where the female-to-male ratio for rheumatoid arthritis is 2½:1 and for lupus it's 9:1. Itchhaporia explained that patients with rheumatoid arthritis are at two- to threefold greater risk for myocardial infarction and have a 50% higher risk for stroke. In the case of systemic lupus, the risk of myocardial infarction is 7 to 50 times greater than in the general population. She noted that cardiovascular risk calculators underestimate the burden of risk in patients with these diseases.

Lastly, she brought up breast cancer and breast arterial calcification as additional emerging risk factors. She explained that women with breast cancer are more likely to develop hypertension and diabetes, compared with women without this diagnosis. Women with hypertension or diabetes before developing breast cancer have twice the risk for heart problems after cancer.

She added that 12.7% of women screened for breast cancer have some degree of breast calcification. She explained that this occurs when calcium accumulates in the middle layer of artery walls in the breast, which is linked to aging, type 2 diabetes, or arterial hypertension and may be a marker of arterial stiffening, which is a cardiovascular disease.

"It's extremely important to take into consideration data suggesting a strong association between breast calcifications and cardiovascular disease, independent of other known risk factors of cardiovascular disease. We need to improve our tests for detecting cardiovascular disease in women and we need to ask specific questions and not overlook these emerging factors," she noted

Improving Health Outcomes

Panelist María Guadalupe Parra Machuca, MD, a cardiologist in Guadalajara, Mexico, specializing in women's heart disease, agreed that it is high time that clinical practice reflect public health policies, so that efforts to diagnose and treat cardiovascular diseases in women more effectively can transition from theory to reality.

"As physicians, we cannot allow public policy to remain outside of the reality we face," she stressed. "We need to let it impact the decisions we make. Everything we see day to day, the things we learn at these conferences — let's put it into practice. Otherwise, all our discussions and all the steps taken to improve care, from primary to highly specialized care and to detect and treat cardiovascular disease in women, will be nothing but rhetoric."

Clinical cardiology specialist Victor Leal, MD, noted that, according to preliminary results from the national survey of cardiovascular risk factors in Mexican women, Mexico is no exception to these emerging risk factors for cardiovascular disease in women. More than 50% of women in Mexico have traditional risk factors, most notably hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, while hypertensive disorders of pregnancy top the list of other sex-specific risk factors.

"Not only are these factors increasing, but also having them increases the risk of a worse prognosis, leaving us with a very challenging scenario," said Leal. "Not only do we need to educate patients about the traditional risk factors, but also about factors that might not be on our radar. We need to get women to link these factors to cardiovascular disease and to the possibility of developing much more adverse outcomes. This will reinforce our diagnosis and treatment."

In an interview with Medscape Spanish Edition, Itchhaporia emphasized the changing face of cardiovascular disease for women, who have worse short- and long-term outcomes than men because they are not asked sex-specific questions during initial encounters and they experience greater prehospital delays.

She noted that while experts need to raise awareness of the emerging risk factors among healthcare professionals, they also need to use information campaigns to make women aware of what the risks are. Then, if they experience any of the emerging risk factors, they can discuss it with their treating physicians.

"We need to assess both the traditional risk factors and the novel ones, those that are underrecognized. We need to include the history of pregnancy and complications during this period and we need to educate women about symptoms of heart disease like chest pain, difficulty breathing, and increasing fatigue," she emphasized. "We must also provide guidance as to lifestyle, diet, and levels of physical activity and be aware of stress and symptoms of depression. Only then will we bring greater awareness to the fact that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among women, and then we can reverse these trends."

Itchhaporia, Parra, and Leal report no relevant financial relationships

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This article was translated from the Medscape Spanish Edition.


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