17 November 1999

Marriage, is it coronary roulette for women?

by Kate Melville

Rather than worrying about the high divorce rate perhaps we should view it as a potential lifesaver for women whose partners have heart problems?

According to a new report presented by Lynn Macken, of the Regional West Medical Center at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions; women whose partners are recovering from heart attack/open heart surgery have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease themselves.

"Currently, all of our attention centers on the heart attack patient's need to lower his or her risk factors in order to avoid disease progression. This study indicates that targeting the spouse of the patient may be important too. What we are seeing is that the wives of heart attack patients have risk factors similar to their husbands. In some cases, the women's risk factors were even higher than their husbands, which is particularly alarming because the women tended to be younger than their mates and were not being screened for potential heart disease," said Macken.

Macken's study looked at 170 men who recently had a heart attack or had undergone coronary bypass surgery. Two months after the even, the patient and his wife separately answered questionnaires on heart disease risk factors and the researchers then analysed the results looking at the degree of shared risk factors.

The most common risk factor shared between spouses was high body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat with 76 percent of the couples, at least one person was overweight or obese (only 40 couples shared normal BMI levels). In addition very few knew their current cholesterol level and their were similarities in smoking histories and exercise levels. In a depressing sign almost twice as many women as men continued to smoke following the husbands coronary event.

Apparently many doctors assume that while working with a patient to help change high risk behavior, the patient is sharing that information with his or her family - the study clearly showed this not to be the case. The same forum heard a paper that highlighted the fact that many men who have problems with impotence may have existing heart problems. If you look at the two pieces of research together it makes you wonder if women should really focus on affairs of the heart?