Heart disease awareness doubles in women; ethnic disparities persist

Heart disease awareness among women has doubled over the past 15 years, but only approximately one-third of black and Hispanic women are aware of the dangers of heart disease. The findings of a survey of heart disease awareness in women was published online Feb. 19 in Circulation as an American Heart Association (AHA) special report.

Heart disease is the leading killer of women in the U.S., and the AHA has been engaged in efforts to raise awareness of risk factors and heart attack symptoms in women since 1997. As part of the Go Red for Women initiative, the AHA commissions triennial surveys of women to assess heart disease awareness.

The current survey was conducted by Harris Interactive and Harris Poll Online between Aug. 28, 2012, and Oct. 5, 2012, in two parts: a random land-line dialer telephone survey and an online survey. The random phone dialer elicited 1,205 eligible women who completed the survey, and 1,227 women completed the online survey. Participants reached by telephone were asked questions about awareness; the online survey-takers were asked additional questions about prevention, response to heart disease symptoms and barriers to wellness.

The survey found that a majority (56 percent) of participants correctly cited heart disease as the leading cause of death among women, which is similar to the overall rates in the past two surveys. However, it represents a shift from 1997, when respondents were more likely to cite cancer as women’s leading cause of death.

Long-standing gaps based on race and ethnicity persist. In 1997, 33 percent of white women correctly answered that heart disease was the No. 1 cause of death, which rose to 65 percent in 2012; among black women, 15 percent answered correctly in 1997 and 33 percent did so in 2012. Awareness among Hispanic women increased from 20 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2012.

There were slight increases in the percentages of women who recognized the symptoms of heart attack. Chest pain (56 percent), pain that spreads to the neck, shoulders or arm (60 percent) and shortness of breath (38 percent) were the symptoms women most frequently recognized. Awareness of nausea as a heart attack symptom increased the most, from 10 percent of women in 1997 to 18 percent in 2012.

Overall, 65 percent of women would call 911 if they thought they were experiencing a heart attack, and 20 percent would take aspirin. The percentage who would call 911 was similar to the overall rate in both white and black women, while 73 percent of Hispanic women would call 911. The percentage of white and black women who would take an aspirin also was similar to the overall rate, but only 10 percent of Hispanic women would take aspirin if they believed they were having a heart attack.

Lori Mosca MD, MPH, PhD, of Columbia University in New York City, and colleagues noted with concern that although heart disease awareness approximately doubled since 1997, “the rate of awareness among women overall has not changed significantly in the past six years, and substantial heart disease awareness gaps persist among racial/ethnic minorities when compared with white women.”

These data indicate that the AHA’s traditional outreach and education methods are not as effective with minority populations, the authors commented. They suggested increased efforts specifically directed toward black and Hispanic women, as well as women in other minority groups; future initiatives to engage younger women in heart disease prevention; and more effective dissemination of information about heart attack symptoms and recommended responses.

The authors noted that this was a survey of English-speaking women who were willing to complete a telephone or online survey, and therefore the results may not be generalizable to the entire female population of the U.S.