Women lag men in cholesterol control

There’s a gap between men and women when it comes to getting “bad” cholesterol under control, a new study suggests.

In an analysis of data from nearly 200 U.S. health plans, researchers found that women with diabetes or heart disease who are at elevated risk of a heart attack were less likely than men with these conditions to have their LDL cholesterol down to recommended levels.

Among 46 commercial managed care plans, 47 percent of women with a history of heart problems had their LDL under control, versus 56 percent of men. Of patients with diabetes, 39 percent of women and 44 percent of men had optimal LDL levels, according to findings published in the journal Women’s Health Issues.

Similar gender differences were seen among the 148 Medicare plans the study analyzed.

The reasons for the gender gap aren’t certain, but several factors likely contribute, according to study co-author Dr. Sarah Hudson Scholle of the National Committee for Quality Assurance in Washington.

“Women sometimes underestimate their heart disease risk,” Scholle told Reuters Health, and this means that cholesterol control may not be a priority for many.

Similarly, some doctors underestimate women’s heart disease odds, Scholle noted. This does not seem to translate into lower rates of cholesterol screening, according to the health plan data, but it may mean that women’s cholesterol levels are less aggressively managed.

“We know that women are getting screened,” Scholle said, “but not enough attention is being paid to getting LDL levels under control.”

It’s important, she explained, for women to “know their numbers,” and then, if necessary, talk to their doctors about various ways to get their cholesterol down. An LDL reading of less than 100 mg/dL is considered optimal.

Regular exercise and a healthy diet - low in saturated fat and trans fat, and high in fruits, vegetables and high-fiber grains - can help keep cholesterol levels in check. When that’s not enough, a statin or other cholesterol-lowering drug may be needed.

More research is now needed, Scholle said, to figure out how the healthcare system can close the gender gap in cholesterol control.

SOURCE: Women Health Issues, May/June 2007.

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