The other feminine mystique

Heart disease research has been disproportionately focused on men, a practice that should be questioned.

by Abby Bar-Lev

On her 85th birthday Saturday, feminists lost one of the most pivotal figures in the feminist movement. Betty Friedan died of congestive heart failure, but left behind inspiration for women everywhere to be bold and explore all aspects of a life one chooses, free of limitations and stereotypes based on gender.

Friedan was the author of the revolutionary “Feminine Mystique” that persuaded women to seek their own identities, and also was co-founder of the National Organization for Women. She was much more than an author and organizer, however. Friedan truly was the voice of a movement.

It is notable and quite relevant that Friedan died of congestive heart failure. Within the same week Friedan died, disturbing news had surfaced concerning women and heart disease. As it turns out, as many as 3 million women suffer from what’s called coronary microvascular syndrome, in which a heart attack remains a high possibility even when coronary arteries are blockage-free and X-rays are clear. The result is that millions of women are entering hospitals complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath but are incorrectly undiagnosed. As The Associated Press reported, “… instead of the usual bulky clogs in main arteries, these women have a hard-to-spot buildup in smaller blood vessels…” In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, one in six women is sent home with a clean bill of health unaware of the dangers that lurk in the near future. These risks are unique to women, although heart disease is the number one killer for both women and men.

Betty Friedan did not have coronary microvascular syndrome, but the fact that medicine and science just now is catching up to women’s health is distressing to say the least. Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center told the Los Angeles Times that heart disease research mostly has been conducted in men, so doctors have not been “aware of the magnitude of the problem” that women face. The discovery that men and women have different symptoms for heart disease should not be something that science just now is discovering in the 21st century. It is painful to think of all the women who already have died thanks to a misdiagnosis based on research that has been disproportionately focused on heart disease in men. And if you do not want to take my word for it, then don’t ” take The Associated Press’, which summed it up succinctly:

“Women are less likely to receive aggressive treatment for heart disease than men, are less likely to receive heart surgery, and respond differently than men to different risk factors and therapies. They frequently have different symptoms of a heart attack than men do… Even the test considered best at diagnosing heart disease ” angiography… is less accurate for women than for men.”

It is clear the differences between men’s and women’s health does not begin and end with reproductive traits. Science professionals continue to discover new aspects of health and medicine every day. There remains a distinctly negligible number of women in the field of science, however. In computer science, for example, according to the Computing Research Association, “only 17 percent of undergraduate computer-science degrees were awarded to women in 2004, down from 19 percent in 2000.” According to a report issued by the National Council for Research on Women, in 2001 women were 46 percent of the overall U.S. work force, but held “only 12 percent of the science and engineering jobs … “

Now more than ever we need women in the field of science. From stem-cell research to reproductive health care to balancing the discrepancy in research between men’s and women’s health, women have a vested interest in science and technology. Already more than 480,000 women die each year from cardiovascular diseases, according to the American Heart Association, which is greater than the number of men who die from cardiovascular diseases. The Los Angeles Times reported that, “Failure to recognize the microvascular syndrome in women may be one reason that 60,000 more women than men die of heart disease each year.” We already are seeing what happens when a field is so male-dominated that, intentionally or not, women’s lives end up on the line.

As our country, and feminists in particular, remember Betty Friedan, we must acknowledge that while opportunities for women are improving, there is always room for improvement. Scientific research that identifies how to best treat and protect men’s and women’s health, so that women are not dying from misdiagnoses would go a long way in improving and saving the lives of countless women.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected]