Multiple studies find unique risks of heart disease and stroke for women

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  • There are many factors unique to women that increase their risk of heart disease
  • Researchers found that poor quality of sleep can affect cardiovascular health
  • Women with adverse pregnancy outcomes or gestational diabetes have a higher cardiovascular risk profile in the first trimester
  • Women who have been sexually assaulted are also more likely to develop heart problems

Women face many risks for heart disease and stroke. This includes pregnancy; physical and emotional stress; and poor sleeping patterns.

The multiple studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association are part of the association’s efforts to ascertain the unique ways cardiovascular disease affects women – in order to improve outcomes and save lives. The studies were based in five different research centres in the United States.

Lack of sleep increases the risk of heart diseases and stroke 

Research from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that poor sleep quality and the risk of obstructive sleep apnoea affected blood pressure. Women who reported having adequate and good quality sleep with no insomnia or snoring were, however, found to have a lower risk of obstructive sleep apnoea. They had good levels of energy and alertness in the morning and better overall cardiovascular health.

The medical centre also found that a higher-energy and lower-quality diet may negatively impact cardiovascular health. This may lead to psychosocial risk factors for cardiovascular disease including depression, and low social support and caregiving. 

Pregnancy as a heart disease risk factor

study followed 4 471 women to track their adverse pregnancy outcomes, including hypertensive disorders of pregnancy; preterm delivery; low birth weight for gestational age; gestational diabetes; and hypertension for two to seven years after giving birth.

Almost 25% of the women enrolled in the study experienced adverse pregnancy outcomes or gestational diabetes during their first birth. Women with at least one of these complications were, on average, more likely to be older than 35; to smoke; and of black ethnicity.

Women with adverse pregnancy outcomes or gestational diabetes were more likely to have a higher cardiovascular risk profile in the first trimester. This means that they were more likely to be obese, have higher blood pressure, higher concentrations of glucose and higher insulin levels.

Sexual violence is a factor in increased chances of heart disease 

Researchers followed 169 non-smoking, cardiovascular disease-free women aged 40 to 60 years who were assessed twice over five years. Of the women who participated in this study, 28% reported being the victim of sexual violence. The women were assessed twice, and both times they completed questionnaires and underwent blood tests and ultrasounds to measure plaque build-up in the carotid artery.

This is the artery that supplies blood to the brain, neck, and face. When compared to women who did not report a history of sexual assault, victims of sexual violence were four times more likely to have plaque build-up of more than 30% of the carotid artery at the first assessment, and three times more likely to have the same amount of plaque build-up at follow-up. Researchers say that future studies should consider whether the prevention of sexual assault reduces women's cardiovascular disease risk.

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