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Towards Health Equality: Improving the Management of Cardiovascular Diseases in Women

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Panellists discussed the importance of recognizing the atypical symptoms of cardiovascular diseases in women for treatment and diagnosis. (Photo: H. Boening/IAEA)

When we think of a heart attack, the symptoms that come to mind are pain in the chest and numbness in the left arm. What many do not know is that often women suffering from the same condition tend to experience different signs. For example, they may feel pain in their necks, backs or jaws, and not necessarily in their chests. Because of this, they may fail to recognize they are having a heart attack.

This was one of the topics discussed at the side event Improving the Management of Cardiovascular Diseases in Women, which took place today on the sidelines of the IAEA’s 63rd General Conference. Experts at the event reviewed the pivotal role of nuclear techniques in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases, particularly in women.

“Despite the significance and impact of cardiovascular diseases on women’s lives, and society at large, not enough attention is given to this epidemic and its relation to women specifically,” said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General of the IAEA’s Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, during her opening address. “Medical imaging in nuclear cardiology offers strategic advantages in both diagnostic and therapeutic decision-making and enables early diagnosis, selection of appropriate therapy and treatment follow-up. Nuclear techniques provide an excellent opportunity to understand the patient’s pathology to help facilitate tailored clinical management — for both men and women.”

Panel experts showcased how early evaluation and appropriate intervention — including adopting healthy habits, such as appropriate diet and physical activity — can save lives and how nuclear techniques can support health professionals in managing patients effectively and in coming up with a timely and appropriate treatment.

“Increased body fat and reduced physical activity are linked to developing Cardiovascular Diseases,” said Alexia Alford, Nutrition Specialist at the IAEA’s Division of Human Health. “The IAEA supports Member States in measuring body composition and energy expenditure using nuclear techniques, thereby assessing the effectiveness of lifestyle interventions in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

Cardiovascular diseases are a leading cause of death for women worldwide, affecting millions. Out of 430 million global new cases of cardiovascular diseases each year, 250 million occur in women; heart attacks alone claim the lives of 3.3 million women every year.

By missing warning signs because women lack the ‘typical’ symptoms associated with a cardiovascular event, necessary life-saving treatments in women could be delayed, said Amalia Peix, cardiologist and nuclear cardiologist at the Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery in La Habana, Cuba, who was part of the panel.

“Women have smaller arteries and therefore feel the pain elsewhere,” said Elba Etchebehere, Professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and Director of a chain of private nuclear medicine laboratories (MND group) in Brazil. “By recognizing the atypical symptoms fast and receiving timely and appropriate treatment, we augment the chance to save lives.”

Panellists presented information related to the specific risks of this disease in women. They talked about the importance of medical imaging in the management of patients with cardiovascular diseases. For example, medical imaging can help in the identification of patients at risk, early diagnosis, the evaluation of the severity of the disease, and as guidance in selecting therapeutic interventions.

“We need to empower women, those whose lives depend on them, society at large, health care providers and the medical community to take this epidemic seriously and understand the implications if we do not work together to learn to recognize the warning signs,” said Diana Paez, Section Head of the Nuclear Medicine and Diagnostic Imaging Section.

Collective support

Speakers at the event also highlighted IAEA initiatives that support countries in tackling the burden of the disease, in a coordinated approach. These include online seminars in nuclear cardiology, an interactive eLearning module, and NUCARD, a mobile App developed to provide guidance on the appropriate use on nuclear cardiology scans.

“This discussion will help us understand the particularities of cardiovascular diseases in women and will support policymakers’ efforts in adopting policies and plans tailored to their needs,” said Mary Alice Hayward, Deputy Director General of the IAEA’s Department of Management, at the event.

The IAEA works towards providing better diagnostic care by strengthening countries’ capabilities on training in medical imaging in cardiology. It also works to strengthen clinical standards, educational resources and opportunities for specialists, she added.

“I hope you will continue to use this platform to exchange your experiences and ideas to support our collective efforts for health equality across the globe.”

Another side event by the Division of Human Health, on the use of isotopic techniques in nutrition, will take place on 19 September. Entitled “Global Energy Expenditure Data: Helping Countries Tackle the Growing Obesity Crisis”, it will be a demonstration of the first comprehensive database on human energy expenditure.

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