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Sex and the heart: It's not what you think

Older women are more at risk for heart disease than men and worse off than they were 10 years ago, say USC and UCLA researchers.

A surprising new study finds that women in their 60s have as many risk factors for heart disease as men, and by their 70s have more, according to research led by demographers at the University of Southern California.

The findings, published in the current issue of the Journal of Women's Health, reflect a change from previous decades when older men were at greater risk for heart disease. Instead this research shows over the last 10 years, older women are doing worse, while men are doing better.

Women's risk for heart disease is still lower than men's through middle age. But the break-even point at which women catch up to men is now at age 60, 10 years earlier than before.

"Women are no longer protected from heart disease risk relative to men," said Eileen Crimmins, corresponding author and professor in USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. "Reports indicating that men are more likely to have more high-risk levels of blood pressure and cholesterol are no longer true in the U.S. population over 60 years of age."

Crimmins and her colleagues examined changes between 1988 and 2002 in indicators related to cardiovascular disease. The research team used data on men and women 40 and older from two broadly representative samples of the US population, approximately 10 years apart.

Among the findings:

High risk blood pressure - both diastolic and systolic - increased in women but decreased in men. Medication against hypertension appeared to be more effective in men than women.

Both men and women saw a decrease in high-risk HDL cholesterol, but men showed greater improvement. The use of cholesterol-lowering medication increased somewhat more for men.

More women than men had high C-Reactive Protein (a marker of infection that in elevated levels has been shown to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease). This appears to be associated with increased use of hormone-replacement therapy, Crimmins said.

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the U.S. Funding for the group's research came from the National Institute on Aging.

Orli Belman | EurekAlert!
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