Women and heart disease: Forum to explore sex differences

Two researchers will speak about the physical differences between the male heart and the female heart as part of a national forum spotlighting women and heart disease.

Professor of Cardiac Imaging, Martin Ugander, will share insights from magnetic resonance imaging on how the heart muscle is different in men and women, while biomedical engineering expert, Dr Susann Beier, will discuss her research mapping coronary artery trends.

They will be among more than 40 researchers, clinicians and community health professionals presenting at the Heart Foundation’s second Women and Heart Disease Forum at the University of New South Wales Sydney on Wednesday, 19 June.

The event, in collaboration with The George Institute for Global Health, will bring together health experts from across a range of disciplines to explore the prevention, treatment and management of heart disease – a leading killer of Australian women.

The forum comes as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare releases new data showing the impact of cardiovascular disease on Australian women. The AIHW data showed an estimated 510,000 women had one or more heart, stroke and vascular diseases in 2017-18, and cardiovascular disease caused three in ten of all female deaths in 2016.

Before joining The University of Sydney in May, Professor Ugander led a study at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute investigating differences between healthy male and female volunteers using an MRI technique to measure blood flow to the heart.

Professor Ugander said they found women had greater blood flow to their heart muscle than the men, both while at rest and during exertion, and greater space between their heart muscle cells.

“We have shown that there are basic differences between healthy men and women in the way the heart muscle tissue is structured and how it functions when supplied with blood,” he said.

“We believe these findings may explain some of the differences we see in how heart disease presents in men and women – women tend to get heart disease ten years later than men and present with symptoms that are not ‘typical’.” His study is yet to be published.

Dr Beier is examining sex differences in the coronary arteries as part of the Coronary Atlas project at UNSW Sydney, using computational modelling of medical images and engineering principles such as fluid mechanics to create a database of artery shapes and blood flow profiles.

The Faculty of Engineering academic said the research project involved “a mapping between different imaging and information sources” to understand emerging patterns in different populations of patients.

Dr Beier said women and men differed in coronary size and shape, with some branches varying, and this had important implications in medicine’s goal to provide more targeted heart disease treatment.

“Depending on how the artery is shaped, and we can account for that, we can model the blood flow and find the stagnation zones where the disease grows. We can get more accurate disease profiles,” she said.

“The key message is that there are differences and they need to be accounted for in treatment.”

The importance of a global shift towards medical research that looks at sex and gender separately will be explored in the keynote speech of The George Institute Principal Director Professor Robyn Norton AO.

Professor Norton said those working to reduce the burden of heart disease were realising they could do so much more if they better understood the differences between men and women and considered the implications of those disparities to improve treatment, prevention and education.

“There’s clear evidence emerging through research that’s been done that if we understand those differences, we can actually save lives,” Professor Norton said.

Heart Foundation Director of Prevention, Julie Anne Mitchell, said the forum, to be opened by NSW Minister for Women, The Honourable Bronnie Taylor MLC, would highlight the significant progress being made towards our understanding of heart disease in women.

“Research into sex and gender difference is lifting the veil on the uniquely female experience of heart disease,” Ms Mitchell said.

“At this forum we will hear more about the ways multidisciplinary health partners are working to identify women facing heart disease risks and about their approaches to prevention and management strategies across the life course.

“The Heart Foundation is proud of its efforts to raise the profile and relevance of heart disease in Australian women.”

Laverty Pathology is a major supporter of the event.

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