Although women with physical disabilities are more likely to be overweight or obese, have high blood pressure, and be less physically active than non-disabled women, very little is known about their experiences with heart disease.

The leading cause of death in women is coronary artery disease. Having a primary disability does not exempt women from also acquiring heart disease. In fact it may be more prevalent in this population. However, women with disabilities may face additional difficulties getting diagnosed and treated. For example, symptoms can be inappropriately attributed to the women's disability, and heart disease left under detected and untreated. Additionally, heart disease may cause increased functional limitation in women who already may have severe limitations due to their primary disabling health conditions.

Prevalence

In the preliminary findings of a study on secondary conditions, heart disease was reported by 72 respondents in a sample of 443 women with physical disabilities.

Among the 881 women responding to a national survey, 5% of women with physical disabilities (n = 475) reported having heart disease, compared to only 2.5% of the women without disabilities (n = 406).

Risk Factors

Although gender differences in risks for heart disease are rarely reported, some studies have reported differences by disability type. For instance, in one study the respondents with polio had more than twice the frequency of heart disease and stroke compared to those with rheumatoid arthritis. Findings from another study indicated that rheumatoid arthritis is associated with a greater risk for cardiovascular disease than osteoarthritis.

Research

No research studies have been conducted on the prevention, risks, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of heart disease in cross-disability samples of women. Such research has the potential to help improve the quality of life and health status of women with disabilities nationwide.

Clearly, there is a need for research studies designed to develop and evaluate heart disease prevention and/or self-management intervention programs for women with disabilities.

The risk of heart disease increases for women after age 55. This risk may occur earlier for many women with disabilities. Your risk for heart disease increases when estrogen levels drop at menopause. Women who have heart attacks are twice as likely as men to die from them. Many more women die from heart disease than from breast cancer. In addition to menopause and getting older, other risk factors for heart disease are:

  • Being more than 30% overweight
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Physical activity
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels
  • Having a close relative who had a heart attack or stroke before age 60
  • Early menopause, before age 40
  • Stress
  • Drinking more than three alcoholic beverages daily
  • Being African-American