The new study shows that risk factors - such as high blood pressure - impact greater on women than men when it comes to cardiovascular disease.
Published in the journal Circulation, the new study examines population attributable risk (PAR) changes for the five major cardiovascular risk factors that are modifiable, which include: high cholesterol, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
The researchers, led by Dr. Susan Cheng of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA, explain that the PAR is a measure that considers how common a risk factor is and how much it raises the likelihood of future heart disease.
"We've been targeting traditional risk factors in public health campaigns for many years," says Dr. Cheng. "We wanted to take a look at how well we've been doing over time at keeping these risk factors from causing heart and vascular disease - both by preventing the risks from occurring and by minimizing their effects when they do occur."
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease is the number one killer of women, taking around one woman every minute. Of the adult female population in the US, 90% have one or more risk factor for developing the disease.
Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease. Although 1 in 31 women in the US dies from breast cancer each year, heart disease claims 1 in 3.
To further investigate how risk factors impact on different genders and races, the research team examined data on 13,541 people as part of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study.
Diabetes and high blood pressure play major role in heart disease
Participants in the study underwent four examinations during four different periods between 1987 and 1998. During this time, they were between the ages of 52-66 years old and were free of cardiovascular disease.
At the exams, researchers determined risk factors and then calculated how each factor contributed to the risk of developing the disease over the next 10 years.
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Results showed that the combined PAR for the five major risk factors stayed the same in blacks but fell in whites.
Additionally, the contribution of diabetes to cardiovascular disease was higher in women than men and more than twice as high in blacks, compared with whites. Meanwhile, high blood pressure also impacted women more than men and blacks more than whites.
Though the team also found that obesity's contribution to the disease has stayed at the same level, they stress that the impact of obesity as a risk factor could be seen in later years, and could also impact on diabetes, which does significantly contribute to heart disease.
A bit of good news: the contribution of both smoking and high cholesterol has decreased in recent years. However, Dr. Cheng says their results "don't suggest that a risk factor like smoking has become any less dangerous, but that fewer people are smoking."
"In fact, for current smokers the risk of heart and vascular disease has actually gone up, possibly because remaining smokers tend to smoke more heavily or carry additional risk factors," she adds.
Regarding the lower contribution of high cholesterol, the team says improvements in both awareness and treatment - including changes in diet and statin therapy - could have accounted for the decreased impact.
Medical News Today recently reported on a new creation from scientists in the UK that could help cure heart disease. The team grew miniature beating human hearts on which they can test newly developed drugs.