NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young women with a family history of heart disease may be less careful about following a healthy lifestyle than their male counterparts, a study has found.
It's well known that people with a parent or sibling who suffered a heart attack at a relatively young age are themselves at higher-than-average risk, so it is especially important for them to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle -- which includes exercising, eating a balanced diet and not smoking.
The new study, published in the American Heart Journal, found that younger women may be less likely than men to heed this advice.
"Some of them are getting the message," senior study author Dr. Amit Khera told Reuters Health, "but not nearly as much as men."
Heart disease was once widely thought of as a "man's" disease. Although this is changing, some women -- even those with a family history of early heart problems -- still underestimate their risk, according to Khera, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
For their study, Khera and his colleagues looked at more than 2,400 men and women between the ages of 30 and 50, of whom 265 had a family history of premature heart disease. This was defined as having a father or brother who suffered a heart attack before the age of 50, or a mother or sister who suffered one before age 55.
Among women, the researchers found, those with a family history were more likely than other women to have multiple other risk factors for heart disease -- such as smoking, excess weight and high blood pressure. Just about half (49 percent) had at least two heart risk factors, versus 39 percent of women with no family history of early heart disease.
Much narrower differences were seen among men, however. What's more, men with a family history tended to be more physically active than other men their age.
In contrast, their female counterparts were just as likely to sedentary as women without a family history of heart problems.
Part of the problem, Khera noted, may be that health providers are not as likely to ask women about their family history of heart disease, or to counsel them on ways to cut heart disease risk.
It's important for all women to be aware of their family history, and to know that premature heart disease -- whether in a male or female relative -- is relevant to them, according to Khera.
No matter how young they are, he said, women with a family history should be taking steps to protect their hearts, through diet, exercise and not smoking. They should also see their doctors for routine medical screenings, including blood pressure and cholesterol measurements, he advised.
SOURCE: American Heart Journal, September 2007.