MONDAY, Feb. 21, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers heading home from a conference on women's heart health have a startling new statistic on their minds: Diabetic women boost their risk for heart disease by 2.5 times, eliminating much of the natural benefit of their gender on cardiovascular health.
The researchers behind the findings acknowledge they're preliminary. Even so, it's reason enough for doctors to reevaluate the way they look at women, diabetes and heart disease, said study co-author Mark Woodward, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Sydney in Australia.
"There's been a relative emphasis on men rather than women in cardiovascular disease because the rates are so much higher," he said. But "having diabetes removes some of the female advantage."
According to Woodward, this new study is the first to examine diabetes and heart disease in women on such a large scale. Woodward and his colleagues reviewed data from dozens of studies involving a total of 450,000 people from countries in Asia and the Pacific including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
The researchers released their findings Feb. 18 at the Second International Conference on Women, Heart Disease and Stroke in Orlando, Fla. A summary of the findings also appeared in a recent issue of Circulation.
About 5 percent of the participants had diabetes. Researchers found that diabetic women were 2.5 times more likely than other women to develop heart disease. That's a bigger change in relative risk than for diabetic men, who were 2 times more likely to develop heart disease compared with non-diabetic men.
In general, men do tend to develop heart disease more than women, "although there really isn't any known reason why," Woodward said. "There's all sorts of theories."
Despite the numbers, heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of women in the United States and the rest of the world, he said. But the higher rates among men appear to have convinced many doctors to worry less about cardiovascular problems in their female patients. "There's a worry that there's been an undertreatment of women," Woodward said. "We shouldn't forget about the men in all of this. It's just that in the past, women have been relatively ignored."
The researchers said their study has several potential weaknesses. Among other things, the findings don't differentiate between the two types of diabetes, and they leave out previous research that didn't break down results by gender.
However, there appears to be no doubt that diabetes contributes to heart disease in both genders. Among other things, diabetes can raise blood pressure and increase cholesterol levels, boosting the risk of clogged arteries. Higher levels of blood sugar also create problems by thickening artery walls, making it easier for blockages to form, said Dr. Athena Philis-Tsimikas, executive director and chief medical officer of the Whittier Institute for Diabetes, part of the Scripps health system in San Diego.
"When you have someone with diabetes, 80 to 90 percent of the time they also have high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and abnormal blood sugar," Philis-Tsimikas said. "When you put them all together, you have three of the strongest risk factors for heart disease."
What to do? Not surprisingly, doctors say the best way to avoid the most dangerous of effects of diabetes is to treat it with weight loss and exercise. "But until you can achieve your goals through lifestyle changes, you can take medications to reduce your risk," Philis-Tsimikas said.
To learn more about diabetes and heart disease, try the American Diabetes Association.