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Discover: What Happens When Hearts Attack

Discover Magazine recently interviewed Susan Cheng, MD, MPH, MMSc, director of Public Health Research at the Smidt Heart Institute, about the differences between women's and men's hearts and how each sex experiences heart disease.

Risk factors such as smoking and diabetes affect women more deeply, which may be related to rising blood pressure (hypertension), Cheng told Discover.

Cheng led a study, published in 2020 in JAMA Cardiology, that tracked the trajectory of the blood pressure of individuals ages 5 to 98 over 43 years. For the first time, the research team compared women with women and men with men, as the Discover article explained. The results showed that blood pressure in women accelerates faster over their lifetimes than it does in men. Additionally, women's blood pressure acceleration starts earlier in life.

“It was eye-opening to us,” Cheng told Discover.

She said this speedup may be due to anatomy. Women’s coronary arteries are smaller in diameter than men’s, relative to body size, which may make them more sensitive to risk factors, such as sedentary lifestyle, high salt intake, obesity and high cholesterol.

This anatomical difference could explain why smoking is a bigger risk factor for heart disease in women, Cheng said. Because cigarette smoke exposes the cells lining our arteries to toxins, it makes women's vessels more susceptible to vascular disease, including hypertension.

Cheng said physicians may need to be more vigilant about treating younger women who have borderline high blood pressure. They also need to make younger to middle-aged adults aware that high blood pressure is not just a condition of older age and that medications and lifestyle changes can help.

Click here to read the complete story from Discover Magazine.