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Why Sex Matters in Heart Disease Risks

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  •                         Reviewed by Pat F.  Bass, III, MD, MPH

        Gender can affect your risk of blood clots that cause a dangerous cardiovascular condition – deep vein thrombosis.

Up to 600,000 people in the United States have a potentially a life-threatening condition known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, every year, according to the CDC.

But do the numbers differ for men vs. women? Some studies show men develop the blood clots in deep veins that cause DVT more often. Women’s risk factors however, such as being on birth control pills and being pregnant, actually raise chances of developing DVT.


Here’s what the research shows. In 2008, investigators analyzed data from three studies that included 1,838 patients and found that deep vein thrombosis was more common in men than women. DVT prevalence was 14 percent in men and 9 percent in women. However, among those who had a history of risk factors related to DVT, there wasn’t much of a difference between men and women.

Another study, published in 2010 by German researchers, looked at almost 5,000 patients who were suspected to have DVT in a leg. Again, men in general were more likely to have DVT — almost 37 percent, compared to 24 percent of women.

While studies may show men are at higher risk for DVT, real-life differences between the condition in men and women aren’t very dramatic, said Nicholas Morrissey, MD, a vascular surgeon at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and associate professor of clinical surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

What is important to remember is that DVT, which can lead to a very serious condition called pulmonary embolism — a blood clot that travels to the lungs — can be prevented. Know your risk, and do what you can to prevent DVT from developing.

RELATED: A Travel Risk You May Not Know About: Deep Vein Thrombosis

DVT: Understanding the Risk Factors

The complexity of participants’ overall health could contribute to studies showing an increased risk among men, Dr. Morrissey said. Unless researchers control for that complexity, the data may not be as accurate as it could be. Often gender as a risk factor disappears for people who are hospitalized, he said. Being immobile in a hospital is a risk factor.

Tall people are considered to be at a higher risk for DVT, but Morrissey said he wouldn’t consider height a strong risk factor.

Women who are pregnant or on birth control pills or hormone therapy are thought to be at higher risk for blood clots. This is because the hormones involved in each of those circumstances make blood more likely to clot. During pregnancy, the pressure that the uterus puts on veins could also lead to clotting.

However, DVT risk doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Morrissey said. Typically, women who develop DVT have another risk factor, such as smoking or a family history of blood clots, he added.

When it comes to treating DVT, there’s not much difference between men and women, Morrissey said. Age is more of a factor. Doctors will take a more aggressive treatment approach with younger people with DVT and prescribe clot-busting drugs. Because those medications can cause swelling and do some damage to veins, doctors tend to be less aggressive in older people and prescribe blood thinners instead.

Prevention of DVT

Anyone can develop DVT, but the biggest risk factors are a spinal cord injury or paralysis, being immobile, injury such as a hip fracture, recent surgery, a family or personal history of blood clots, having cancer because treatment may increase clots, a history of obesity, heart failure, using birth control, and smoking, Morrissey said.

And by far the biggest risk factor is age, he said. After age 60, your risk for DVT tends to go up, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.


Get walking. Whether you’re a man or a woman, young or older, take steps to prevent a blood clot by walking as much as possible. When you walk, your calf muscles squeeze your veins and help propel your blood through them, Morrissey said. When you can’t walk, such as when you’re in the hospital or on a plane, tap your foot as if you’re pressing a gas pedal, he said. It will help with your circulation while you’re sitting.

Use compression stockings. Compression stockings, which you can buy at the drug store or online, can also have a tremendous benefit, Morrissey said. He recommended wearing them during the day any time you have swelling, after surgery, and when you’re flying or immobile. However, you shouldn’t wear them if you already have a blood clot.

Know the DVT warning signs. Finally, don’t ignore the warning signs of DVT, which include swelling, redness, warmth, tenderness, and pain — often in the leg. Preventing DVT means taking the risks seriously and seeing a doctor at the first sign of symptoms.


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