Experts say heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death among women throughout the world.  Yet, a new study by Duke University in North Carolina shows, as in much of the world, women in the U.S. are not treated as aggressively as men for heart disease. The study compares how often doctors implant a life saving medical device in men and women.  The results show that men are two to three times more likely to get this device than women are.  VOA's Carol Pearson has more.

An ICD, or implantable cardioverter-defibrilator, goes under the skin.  ICD's send electric shocks to the heart if it starts beating irregularly.  And these devices can and do prevent sudden death. But the findings of a new study stunned even the researchers.

"What we found was that men were two to three times more likely than women to receive an ICD.  That's not a small, subtle difference. That's a large effect, and that was surprising," said Lesley Curtis.

Professor Curtis and her colleagues at Duke University in North Carolina reviewed the data on more than 200,000 patients in the U.S.  They found, even if men and women had the same risk factors for heart attack, men were more likely to receive ICD's than women. 

"Clearly we need to do a lot more work to understand why this gap exists, and then do even more work to close the gap," said the professor.

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Cardiologist Adrian Hernandez is the study's co-author. He says women need to advocate for better health treatment, not just in the United States, but also throughout the world. "We need to do a better job to make sure women understand heart disease does occur in women -- it's important -- and that specifically, sudden cardiac death is important, and defibrilators are therapy for preventing sudden cardiac death."

Dr. Hernandez says part of the problem is that doctors around the world -- and even the women themselves -- do not always recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. Women may or may not have chest pain when they are having an attack.  They have a broader set of symptoms that include pain in the abdomen or neck and shoulders, nausea and vomiting or just plain fatigue. 

In addition, because women have different symptoms than men, they are likely to be misdiagnosed and treated for anxiety instead of heart failure.

Mary Lee Farley has an ICD.  She considers herself lucky because, in the U.S., black women are most likely to have their risks of heart attack overlooked. "I am lucky, very lucky.  If a black woman's at the end and white men is at the top, yeah, I'm lucky."

Experts say more research needs to be done on heart disease in women and more information about it needs to get public health officials, doctors and women themselves.  They say that would, not only to prevent heart attacks, but also the long-term disability that heart disease can cause.

And, they say paying more attention to women's heart health would have a huge economic and social impact, especially in developing countries where smoking, poor nutrition and other factors are causing heart disease to rise in all age groups.  

Video courtesy of The Journal of The American Medical Association