Knowing our risk for heart disease and understanding how we can manage that risk plays a major role in avoiding deadly heart attacks and strokes. Unfortunately, evidence continues to show gender has a strong influence on heart health. So specialists have turned their attention toward establishing a set of health guidelines that takes into account the different risks males and females face.

Research presented at the American College of Cardiology's 65th Annual Scientific Session has revealed that the two most common symptoms among both men and women suspected of heart disease are chest pain and shortness of breath. But each gender’s descriptions of what these symptoms feel like varies.

"The most important take-home message for women from this study is that their risk factors for heart disease are different from men's, but in most cases symptoms of possible blockages in the heart's arteries are the same as those seen in men," said lead researcher Kshipra Hemal, from the Duke Clinical Research Institute, in a statement.

Hemal and her colleagues gathered data using the Prospective Multicenter Imaging Study for Evaluation of Chest Pain. A total of 10,003 patients suspected of having coronary artery disease, including over 5,200 women, took part in a randomized trial at 193 centers in the United States and Canada. Researchers split the participants into two groups. One received heart CT scans to determine how narrow their arteries were and a second received a test that tracked the heart’s response to stress. Each participant also completed a survey as part of the analysis, which asked them to describe their pain.

Although the research team found that 73.2 percent of women and 72.3 percent of men experienced chest pain as their primary symptom, the two groups described it very differently. Women were more likely to describe the pain as "crushing," "pressure," "squeezing," or "tightness,” while men labeled it as "aching," "dull," "burning," or "pins and needles." Fifteen percent of men and women reported shortness of breath as well.

"For health care providers, this study shows the importance of taking into account the differences between women and men throughout the entire diagnostic process for suspected heart disease," Hemal said. "Providers also need to know that, in the vast majority of cases, women and men with suspected heart disease have the same symptoms."

The women had more underlying risk factors for heart disease than the men, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a history of stroke, a sedentary lifestyle, a family history of early-onset heart disease, and a history of depression. Yet they scored lower when graded against standard risk assessment measures.

"The next step in this research will be to examine whether and how the differences we have identified between women and men influence outcomes,” Hemal said.

A similar study has also shown that, despite having more risk factors, women and their doctors tend to underestimate their risk for heart disease. The lead researcher of this study, Dr. Erica Leifheit-Limson, and her colleagues found that women were 11 percent less likely to be told they were at risk for heart disease compared to men and 16 percent less likely to have a discussion with a doctor about heart disease and how they could modify their risk. Like Hemal’s research team, Leifheit-Limson’s recommends a set of heart health guidelines specific to each gender.

Source: Hemal K et al. Study Finds Sex-Specific Approaches Needed For CAD Evaluation: Separate Studies Find Women Experience Differences in Advice, Treatment and Outcomes. American College of Cardiology's 65th Annual Scientific Session. 2016.