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Despite its reputation as a man's problem, heart disease now kills significantly more women than men, according to a new international study.
This year, an estimated 8.6 million women worldwide will succumb to cardiovascular disease, compared to 7.9 million men, the World Health Organization says.
Smoking, poor nutrition, obesity and inactivity are the principal contributors to heart disease in both men and women. But paradoxically, increasing life expectancy has also been a major factor: After menopause, a woman's risk of heart disease and stroke soars because she loses the protective effects of estrogen.
Women, on average, suffer the onset of heart disease about a decade later than men. For public-health officials, the frustration is that women, who tend to be much more aware of personal health issues than men, don't seem to take heart disease seriously.
"Although most women fear cancer, particularly breast cancer, they do not make the same efforts to safeguard themselves from heart disease, which is eminently preventable," said Catherine Le Gales- Camus, assistant director-general of non-communicable diseases at the WHO.
In fact, a woman is about 18 times as likely to die of heart disease as of breast cancer. Worldwide, about one-third of deaths are due to heart disease; in developed countries such as Canada, cardiovascular disease accounts for half of all deaths.
Dr. Philip Poole-Wilson, president of the World Heart Federation, said not just women need to change their view of the seriousness of heart disease; the medical community does too.
He said research has repeatedly shown that women are undertreated for heart problems. For example, a man is far more likely to undergo angioplasty or coronary-artery bypass surgery than a woman, even if their conditions are medically similar.
A recent international poll of physicians showed that the vast majority thought stroke was a greater risk to men than women. In fact, a woman is almost 50 percent more likely to have a stroke than a man.
"It's time for every woman to take charge of her health and to stop underestimating the risks," Poole-Wilson said in a statement marking World Heart Day, which occurred Sunday.
"More than half of female deaths and disability from heart disease and stroke could be cut through a combination of simple, cost-effective national efforts and by women themselves to reduce their major risk factors."
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