SNOWMASS, COLO. (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Achieving continued reductions in cardiovascular deaths in U.S. women will require that physicians make greater use of sex-specific risk factors that aren’t incorporated in the ACC/AHA atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk score , Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres asserted at the Annual Cardiovascular Conference at Snowmass.

In the 13-year period beginning in 2000, with the launch of a national initiative to boost the research focus on cardiovascular disease in women, the annual number of women dying from cardiovascular disease has dropped by roughly 30%. That’s a steeper decline than in men. One of the keys to further reductions in women is more widespread physician evaluation of sex-specific risk factors – such as a history of elevated blood pressure in pregnancy, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or radiation therapy for breast cancer – as part of routine cardiovascular risk assessment in women, said Dr. Mieres, senior vice president office of community and public health at Hofstra Northwell in Hempstead, N.Y.

Hypertension in pregnancy as a harbinger of premature cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases has been a topic of particularly fruitful research in the past few years.

“The ongoing hypothesis is that pregnancy is a sort of stress test. Pregnancy-related complications indicate an inability to adequately adapt to the physiologic stress of pregnancy and thus reveal the presence of underlying susceptibility to ischemic heart disease,” according to the cardiologist.

She cited a landmark prospective study of 10,314 women born in Northern Finland in 1966 and followed for an average of more than 39 years after a singleton pregnancy. The investigators showed that any elevation in blood pressure during pregnancy, including isolated systolic or diastolic hypertension that resolved during or shortly after pregnancy, was associated with increased future risks of various forms of cardiovascular disease.

For example, de novo gestational hypertension without proteinuria was associated with significantly increased risks of subsequent ischemic cerebrovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, acute MI, chronic hypertension, and heart failure. The MIs that occurred in Finns with a history of gestational hypertension were more serious, too, with an associated threefold greater risk of being fatal than MIs in women who had been normotensive in pregnancy ( Circulation. 2013 Feb 12;127[6]:681-90 ).

New-onset isolated systolic or diastolic hypertension emerged during pregnancy in about 17% of the Finnish women. Roughly 30% of them had a cardiovascular event before their late 60s. This translated to a 14%-18% greater risk than in women who remained normotensive in pregnancy.

The highest risk of all in the Finnish study was seen in women with preeclampsia/eclampsia superimposed on a background of chronic hypertension. They had a 3.18-fold greater risk of subsequent MI than did women who were normotensive in pregnancy, a 3.32-fold increased risk of heart failure, and a 2.22-fold greater risk of developing diabetes.

In addition to the growing appreciation that it’s important to consider sex-specific cardiovascular risk factors, recent evidence shows that many of the traditional risk factors are stronger predictors of ischemic heart disease in women than men. These include diabetes, smoking, obesity, and hypertension, Dr. Mieres observed.

For example, a recent meta-analysis of 26 studies including more than 214,000 subjects concluded that women with type 1 diabetes had a 2.5-fold greater risk of incident coronary heart disease than did men with type 1 diabetes. The women with type 1 diabetes also had an 86% greater risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases, a 44% increase in the risk of fatal kidney disease, a 37% greater risk of stroke, and a 37% increase in all-cause mortality relative to type 1 diabetic men (Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2015 Mar;3[3]:198-206).

A wealth of accumulating data indicates that type 2 diabetes, too, is a much stronger risk factor for cardiovascular diseases in women than in men. The evidence prompted a recent formal scientific statement to that effect by the American Heart Association ( Circulation. 2015 Dec 22;132[25]:2424-47 ).

Dr. Mieres reported having no financial conflicts of interest regarding her presentation.