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Scientific Study Takes Closer Look at Women's Risk for Heart Disease

Figures from the World Health Organization show that 17 million people die of cardiovascular disease each year. Symptoms for heart disease in men and women often vary. But typically doctors diagnose heart problems in women based on risk factors seen in men. Now a decade-long study of 25,000 American women shows some underlying risks that may provide deeper clues to heart disease in many women.

Forty-five-year-old Leslie Power was out shoveling snow two years ago when she got the first warning of a pending heart attack. "I couldn't breathe. I was having pain in my shoulder."

Leslie Power had not thought she was at risk for heart disease. Typically women experience warning signs for at least a month before an attack. Doctors can often make a wrong diagnosis because symptoms can match those of another illness. General symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain that lasts for a few minutes then returns. Pain felt in other parts of the upper body. Nausea or vomiting, dizziness, or rapid heart beats.

For women, those symptoms can include unusual fatigue, trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, indigestion or anxiety. Or sometimes women heart attack victims may have no symptoms at all.

Dr. Paul Ridker is part of a researcher team at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts: "We currently tend to underestimate women's risk for heart disease. We found in the new data that many women were at much higher risk than we anticipated."

Dr. Ridker and his colleagues collected blood samples from almost 25,000 women who were 45 years and older. They looked at factors that could lead to heart attack or stroke years later. Their findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We created a new risk score, something called the Reynolds Risk Score. And it turned out this does a much better job predicting accurately a woman's true risk of having a heart attack or stroke over the next ten years of her life."

The 'score' measures the usual factors such as smoking tobacco, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and of course, age. Also taken into consideration: whether your parents and other relatives suffered heart attacks. Now the Reynolds Risk assessment includes a measurement of the C-reactive protein in your blood. C-R-P, as it is called, indicates possible inflammation of the arteries.

Again, Dr. Paul Ridker. "What's very important to understand is that you can be a high-risk patient if your C-R-P is elevated, even if your cholesterol levels are low."

Health experts say millions of women -- and men -- may be at risk for heart disease. For those who have access to a computer, Dr. Ridker believes that reading about the Reynolds Risk Score might just give you the tools you and your doctor need to make an intelligent diagnosis:

"We can reclassify nearly 50 percent of all those women into higher or lower risk," says the doctor.

While using the scoring system may help forecast future risk of heart disease, the researchers say as many as one fourth of heart attacks and strokes still occur among people who show no warning signs.

Nevertheless, Leslie Power says she wants others to benefit from she has already learned. "I think what women need to understand is that they are at risk for heart disease." Power is reducing her risk of further heart problems by exercising more and quitting smoking.

Video provided by the Journal of the American Medical Association