Women Closing Gender Gap
Middle-age men still have higher rates of heart attacks and heart disease than middle-age women, but those gender differences appear to be narrowing, a study finds.

The findings follow earlier research, published in 2007, establishing that stroke prevalence among women ages 45 to 54 was double that of men of the same age. Together, the findings suggest "an ominous trend in cardiovascular health among midlife women," said the lead author of both studies, Dr. Amytis Towfighi, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of Southern California.

Women have been thought to be largely protected from heart attacks and stroke prior to menopause due to hormonal influences. But the rising rate of obesity, which is higher in middle-age women than middle-age men, could undermine that natural benefit.

The new study, published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined national survey data from 1988 through 1994 and from 1999 through 2004. More than 4,000 men and women ages 35 to 54 completed the surveys. Researchers looked at heart attack rates as well as scores from a measure used to predict the risk of a having a heart attack in 10 years.

In both time periods, men had more heart attacks than women. But the rates for men improved from 2.5 percent in the earlier period to 2.2 percent in the second time frame. Women's rates rose from 0.7 percent to 1 percent.

Men's cardiovascular risk factors improved or remained stable over the two study periods while the only risk factor that improved in women was high-density lipoprotein levels. This suggests that precursors to heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, are not assessed or treated as aggressively in women, Towfighi said.

However, a second paper published in the same journal reveals that some strides are being made in treating women's cardiovascular health. That study found survival rates following a heart attack improved in both men and women between 1994 and 2006, with the biggest improvements seen in women.