Gaps in care for women's "biggest health threat"

Last Updated Feb 24, 2016 3:43 PM EST

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in American women.

But recent studies from the American Heart Association show a gender gap in cardiac care because women are "understudied, underdiagnosed and undertreated."

According to CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula -- a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and national spokesman for the American Heart Association -- the annual mortality rate for cardiovascular disease for women has outpaced men since 1984. Women are also likely to do worse after their first heart attack, with longer hospitalizations, readmission and complications.

Study: Heart attack symptoms different in women and men

The gap stems from various gender differences, beginning with biological factors. Women tend to be older when they have cardiovascular symptoms -- around the age of 70 compared to men in their 60s. Certain risk factors can also be more potent for women, including tobacco, diabetes, depression and other psychosocial factors.

In addition, the presentation of symptoms may also be different for women, which could lead to misdiagnosis.

"We're learning that the biology of women's heart disease may be very different from men in terms of how they have their heart attacks, the mechanisms of their blood vessel dysfunction," Narula told "CBS This Morning."

According to Narula, health care practitioners also share blame for "misdiagnosing" female heart disease patients, "for not sending them for diagnostic evaluation" as often, and "not giving them the guidelines for treatment."

The Go Red For Women movement was founded in 2004 to increase awareness of heart disease for women. Narula said it's done "really well," but still not enough -- while the AHA says about 80 percent of heart disease may be preventable, only 55 percent of women realize that cardiac disease is their "biggest health threat."

"A lot of women, they don't recognize the symptoms or if they do have the symptoms, they blow them off, they don't prioritize themselves, or they're afraid or they're embarrassed," Narula said.

In addition to boosting awareness, Narula also urged women to take active preventative measures, including getting annual physical examinations, knowing the risk factors, and not ignoring symptoms.

"One of the things the AHA is promoting is a 'Well Woman Visit'. This is the idea that you go as a woman to see an internist, an OB guide and talk about your health history, your family history, your risk factors, before you ever get to the point where you have a problem," Narula said.