After a heart attack, patients are advised to take certain medications in order to reduce their risk of recurrence. But a new study finds many heart attack patients are either not prescribed such medications or do not take them, with younger women most affected.

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Researchers find young women are not as likely as young men to be prescribed or to take the appropriate medications post-heart attack.

Lead study author Kate Smolina, of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

Each year, around 735,000 men and women in the US have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 210,000 occur among individuals who have already had a heart attack.

Alongside lifestyle changes, it is recommended that both men and women who survive a heart attack take cardiovascular medications – such as beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors and statins – to lower their risk of another.

However, Smolina and colleagues note that previous research has indicated women take fewer cardiovascular medications following heart attack than men.

To learn more about the potential disparities in use of post-heart attack medication between men and women, the researchers analyzed 2007-09 data of more than 12,000 heart attack patients in Canada who survived for at least 1 year.

Fast facts about heart attack
  • Heart attack occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle is blocked
  • Warning signs of a heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath and pain or discomfort in both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • High cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity and overweight and obesity are common modifiable risk factors for heart attack.

Learn more about heart attack

The team found that after being discharged from the hospital following a heart attack, only one-third of patients filled all of their prescriptions for appropriate cardiovascular medications for at least 80% of the year.

What is more, the researchers found that women under the age of 55 were less likely to have started taking the appropriate medication after heart attack than men of the same age group, with only 65% of women initiating such treatment, compared with 75% of men.

When it came to treatment adherence following heart attack, the team identified no differences between men and women.

While the researchers are unable to explain exactly why younger women are less likely to start taking cardiovascular medication after heart attack than younger men, Smolina says there are two possible reasons: “It is either a consequence of physicians’ prescribing behavior, or patients not taking their prescribed medication, or both.”

Smolina adds that it is possible physicians and patients continue to see heart disease as a condition that primarily affects men. “Heart disease in young women has only recently received research attention,” she continues, “so it is possible that physicians and patients still have the incorrect perception that these heart medications pose risks to younger women.”

Whether the gender disparity in medication use after heart attack is down to patients or physicians, the researchers believe their findings have important implications. Study coauthor Karin Humphries, professor of cardiology at the University of British Columbia, says:

The gender gap in treatment initiation among younger women is an important finding because younger women have much worse outcomes after suffering a heart attack than do men of the same age.

This finding suggests that younger women should be treated aggressively, especially when we have medications that work.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study published by The Lancet in which researchers detail the creation of a blood test that can detect when chest pain is unlikely to be a heart attack.