Some of the main factors that can predispose a person to heart attack include smoking cigarettes, having high blood pressure and high cholesterol, being overweight, and having diabetes. Whom do these risk factors affect the most, however?

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How do risk factors for heart attack impact men vs. women? A new study weighs in.

During a heart attack, or myocardial infarction, the heart stops functioning normally.

This is because its blood supply is cut off, often by a blood clot.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), someone in the United States experiences a heart attack every 40 seconds, and each year, around 790,000 people go through such an event.

The current stance is that men are more at risk of heart attack compared with women, while women’s risk increases after going through menopause.

However, researchers from the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom have now conducted a study that indicates that women may be more affected by certain risk factors for heart attack than men.

In the study paper, which now appears in The BMJ, the team reports that a smoking habit, diabetes, and high blood pressure render women even more vulnerable than men to heart attacks.

The researchers analyzed the data of 471, 998 participants, of whom 56 percent were women. The participants were aged 40–69, and they had no history of cardiovascular disease.

In the first instance, the investigators’ findings were not surprising. They confirmed that both men and women are at heightened risk of heart attack if they smoke, have diabetes, have high blood pressure, or have a body mass index (BMI) of over 25, which indicates an unhealthy weight or potential obesity.

Also unsurprisingly, men who smoked 20 or more cigarettes per day had more than twice the risk of experiencing a heart attack compared with men who had never smoked. However, the surprise came when the researchers looked at the data of female participants.

Women who smoked had a more than three times higher risk of heart attack than women who had never smoked. The researchers refer to this as “excess risk.”

Women with high blood pressure and diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) also had an increased risk. However, the excessive increase in risk did not apply to women with a high BMI.

More specifically, the researchers found that high blood pressure was tied to an over 80 percent increase in relative risk in the case of women compared with men.

With type 1 diabetes, women had an almost thrice as high relative risk of heart attack as men, and for type 2 diabetes, women had a 47 percent higher relative risk.

“Overall, more men experience heart attacks than women. However, several major risk factors increase the risk in women more than they increase the risk in men, so women with these factors experience a relative disadvantage,” explains lead researcher Dr. Elizabeth Millett.

When looking at how the risk of heart attack changed with age, the researchers found that the hazards associated with smoking and high blood pressure decreased with age for both men and women.

Yet the excess risk associated with women remained consistent, regardless of age.

These findings highlight the importance of raising awareness around the risk of heart attack women face, and ensuring that women as well as men have access to guideline-based treatments for diabetes and high blood pressure, and to resources to help them stop smoking.”

Dr. Elizabeth Millett