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Ask the Medical Expert Archives 2000-2004

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Women and Heart Disease
March 2000

Q. Are women at risk for heart disease?

A. This is a very tricky question. The basis of the "trick" comes from the word "risk." Risk is a concept that is not well understood by most people. I will first answer the question, and then I will describe a bit about risk.

Of course women are at risk of heart disease. In fact, heart disease is the #1 killer of women. The key, however, is that men have a greater risk of heart disease than women. Because of this, many people (both patients and doctors) dismiss a woman as being at "low risk" for heart disease. In fact, it is all relative.

Risk is simple the chance that something will occur. If I flip a coin, the chance of it coming up heads is 50%; the risk that I will lose a bet based on the toss is 50%. If I call a card and then pull one from a standard deck, the risk is 1 in 52 (about 2%) that I will be right. In medicine, we often deal with these smaller numbers (in the 1-5% range) instead of the bigger numbers (in the 50% range). Sometimes the numbers are very small. For example, the risk of a child having PKU disease is about 1 in 10,000.

So women have a risk of heart disease, it is just lower than that of men. This is like people who wear seat belts are at risk for dying in a car accident, the risk is just lower than those who don't wear seat belts. Whether the absolute risk justifies any particular action (such as wearing a seat belt, screening for PKU, or working to reduce your heart disease risk) depends on your personal preferences.

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