TUESDAY, Nov. 5, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Women under 60 typically have lower heart risks than their male peers but diabetes can change all that, a new study finds.
The research showed that women younger than 60 who had diabetes were up to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those without diabetes, putting them at the same risk level as men.
"We need to work harder to prevent heart disease in women under 60 who have diabetes," study author Dr. Rita Rastogi Kalyani, an endocrinologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a Hopkins news release.
Another expert agreed. "Women less than 60 years old with diabetes need to be aggressively screened for heart disease, and prevention is crucial," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"In this group, perhaps the recommendations of diet and exercise and 'watch and wait' is not the best way to manage the patient," she said.
Instead, doctors should make sure that "targets for cholesterol and blood pressure are met with medication [and] lifestyle intervention, as soon as the diagnosis is made," said Steinbaum.
In the study, Kalyani's team analyzed data from more than 10,000 Americans who took part in three large studies. None of the participants had a history of heart disease when they enrolled in the studies.
In contrast to the findings for women, diabetes had little or no effect on men's risk of heart disease, according to the study, which was published recently in the journal Diabetes Care.
"Our study adds to growing evidence that gender differences exist in the risk of coronary artery disease brought on by diabetes," Kalyani said. She added that the study is believed to be the first to focus specifically on gender differences in coronary artery disease among younger and middle-aged people with diabetes.
Factors such as genetics and hormones may explain the differences between men and women when it comes to how diabetes affects heart health, the researchers said.
Dr. Kenneth Ong, interim chief of cardiology at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City, called the findings "profound," and said that they may affect current guidelines regarding screening for heart disease.
He said the findings might also influence guidelines on the management of diabetes and other heart risk factors, and increase the "use of preventive medication such as taking an aspirin a day."
The study also "raises the question of why women, in particular, are so much more sensitive to the harmful effects of [diabetes] than men. The authors offered some possible explanations, but these need further investigation," Ong said.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about women and heart disease.