When Nancy Larko, aged 84, went to see her doctor in Meadville, Pennsylvania, earlier this year, she thought her stomach pains was the result of something she’d eaten. Her symptoms had begun on Friday afternoon, but Larko, unconcerned, didn’t contact her doctor until the following Tuesday, after four days of discomfort. Her doctor said that it was a gallstone, but nothing to worry about; he kept her in observation overnight, then sent her home on Wednesday afternoon.
No one seemed to have noticed that Larko had had a heart attack.
Soon after she got home on Wednesday, Larko began experiencing chest pains. This time, she called her family and her doctor immediately. At the hospital, she was told that she had had two heart attacks over the past five days—and the first one had created a hole in her septum between the left and right ventricles, weakening her heart and almost completely killing the bottom part of the muscle. Two days later, Larko died.
The fact that Larko and her doctors missed her first heart attack is not an unusual occurrence—thousands of American women with heart disease are misdiagnosed every year, often with fatal consequences. Heart disease is currently the number-one cause of death among women in the U.S., killing more than all cancers combined. While men are more likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, women still made up slightly more than half of all its fatalities in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available. Women are also more likely than men to die in the year following a heart attack. In part, these disparities can be traced back to a bias older than modern medicine itself.