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Women's Heart Health: Research Update

In honor of American Heart Month, Cedars-Sinai researchers gathered on National Wear Red Day to share some of the most promising new research regarding women’s heart health.

From a vaccine that could prevent clogged arteries to a way to transform fat cells into calorie-busting cells, here's a recap:

From Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, medical director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center:

  • Since the WISE study started in the late 90s, cardiovascular disease among women is at its lowest rates in 40 years. Women were dying in significantly higher numbers than men since the mid-80s, and now are dying at about the same rate.
  • Researchers and cardiologists remain vigilant: While the overall trend in women’s heart health is improving, heart attacks are on the rise among women under age 55.
  • Through the Women’s Heart Alliance, Cedars-Sinai and New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center scored major regulatory wins for women’s health.
    • As part of the 21st Century Cures Act, research funded by the National Institutes of Health for diseases that affect men and women must include female cells and female animals in lab studies. For many decades, research subjects have too frequently been exclusively male.
    • The Food and Drug Administration’s Drug Trials Snapshot website now includes information on whether approved drugs included women and minorities in their clinical trial phases.
    • Next up: Supporting efforts to perfect medication dosing, as most medication doses are based on appropriate amounts for a man to take and don’t always consider how medications might work differently in women.

From Dr. P.K. Shaw, Shapell and Webb Chair in Cardiology:

  • Cedars-Sinai has been researching how a vaccine might effectively prevent artherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and death.
  • Cedars-Sinai researchers have identified a specific protein in cholesterol that they call the "culprit-in-chief" behind the hardening of the arteries. This protein sets off a reaction in the immune system that produces inflammation as dangerous to the vascular system as the plaque build-up. A vaccine may be able to prevent this immune reaction and one could be ready for clinical trials within the next year or so.
  • Get your flu shot: Flu drastically increases the risk for heart attack and stroke within a few days and for up to a year after you get the illness. The flu shot reduces the risk of a heart attack by 20-45%—on par with giving up smoking or using statins. Yet only a third of heart disease patients under age 65 get their flu vaccination each year.

From Dr. Sarah Kilpatrick, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology:

  • Women are dying more often from pregnancy-related causes: There has been a 75% increase in the number of pregnancy deaths. In California, the most common case of maternal death is related to heart disease.
  • Women are also becoming sicker during pregnancy, with a 140% increase in morbidity—that is, the instance of serious illnesses related to pregnancy. About 53,000 women in the US become seriously ill with their pregnancy each year.
  • For these reasons, Cedars-Sinai has a Perinatal Outreach Program, which works with local doctors and hospitals to get the most critically ill pregnant mothers and infants with high-risk conditions to Cedars-Sinai. The medical center has a 16-room maternal fetal care unit and a Level IV regional neonatal intensive care unit—meaning that all the latest technology and many highly trained specialists are available here to help these women.
  • Pregnancy offers a window into a woman’s health future. Women have increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes if they had preeclampsia, preterm delivery or both. In fact, these women may face up to 8x higher risk of developing heart-related health problems.
  • Cedars-Sinai developed a Postpartum Heart Health Program specifically to screen women with high blood pressure, diabetes, or preterm delivery for cardiovascular risk.