Women are disproportionately effected by the complications and disease outcome of COVID-19 compared to men.
Gender-specific conditions have the potential to worsen the heart and lung damage caused by this virus. COVID-19 is a vascular disease. Women, compared to men, have smaller blood vessels, which can become dysfunctional and affect the body’s ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the heart. This microvascular dysfunction leads to ischemia which results in plaque erosion, clot formation and a potential cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke.
Other risk factors include polycystic ovarian disease, early onset puberty and the fact that women have higher incidences of autoimmune disease–putting them at risk for cytokine storms (hyper-responses of the immune system). Even though males have higher plasma levels of immune cytokines (immune cells called to the site of infection), women with higher levels of these cytokines were associated with worse disease progression and outcome than men.
The risks to women who have had problem pregnancies (preeclampsia, gestational diabetes) and women going through menopause are also notable. Estrogen helps prevent cardiovascular disease, and as their estrogen levels decline, menopausal women experience a higher likelihood of developing heart disease. Depression increases the risk of heart attack in women by 50% although researchers are unsure why. Severe shock can also take its toll on women. Broken heart syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy can cause fatal heart damage to mostly menopausal and postmenopausal women who have undergone a sudden stress such as losing a spouse, a car accident or being a victim of a violent crime.
Effective therapy and prevention is needed which starts with educating women in knowing their risks.
Gender differences for increased heart disease were already in place before COVID-19, but it is important to understand the increased risk factors for women that present themselves due to the nature of this virus.