Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, yet it’s long been considered a “man’s disease” in the popular imagination. This perception likely stems, in part, from the fact that coronary heart disease, the most common cause of heart attacks, is more prevalent among men—and tends to strike them at a younger age. When younger women do have heart attacks, though, studies have found that they are about twice as likely to die as their male counterparts—and more than 15,000 women under the age of 55 do every year.
But focusing on what individual women do—or don’t do—when they’re having a heart attack is a way of subtly shifting the blame for the deep and systemic failures of our health care system onto its victims.
For decades, studies have attempted to tease out the various factors that may contribute to that significant gender gap. Recently, researchers at the Yale School of Public Health published a qualitative study exploring the experiences of women under the age of 55 who had been hospitalized for a heart attack. The main take-away—according to most headlines summing up the results—seems to be that younger women may “ignore” or “dismiss” their symptoms and “hesitate” or “delay” in seeking care, in part out of anxiety about raising a false alarm.