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carrie fisher and the dark side of medicine

Image: jimivr via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Image: jimivr via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This year we’ve had to say goodbye to an unprecedented number of well-loved icons, and none have upset me more than the loss of Carrie Fisher. Having grown up on a steady diet of Star Wars, Princess Leia was a childhood hero of mine, and as I grew up Carrie became a hero to me as well. An actor, TV host, writer, script doctor and outspoken campaigner for mental health, Carrie broke boundaries and took no prisoners with truth and wit.

While I tried to process the news of her death, I took inspiration from her openness about her struggles with bipolar disorder in life. I decided to honour her honesty and activism by educating people about cardiovascular disease (CVD), the silent problem that ultimately took her before she could talk about it. The media may have made a star out of Carrie Fisher, but it has also unfortunately made heart attacks a greater killer of women.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the British Heart Foundation found that four in ten people took advice on heart attacks from TV and films. This is an issue not just because these are works of fiction, which are more concerned with dramatic value than accurate portrayal, but also because they are not allowed to show women topless without earning a higher rating certificate or later viewing slot.

Therefore, to make their product more viewer friendly, media portrayals of heart attacks are almost entirely suffered by men.

This means that not only are symptoms in men more widely portrayed and known, but CVD is also more commonly linked in the public’s minds to men, meaning men are more likely to be thought to be suffering from a heart attack than women. Symptoms of a heart attack in men are seen as more serious than those commonly felt by women – which goes hand in hand with the fact that women being more likely to have their pain dismissed as psychological even though statistically more men suffer heart attacks than women, a higher percentage of women under 54 die of them as a result.

But it’s not just the general public who misidentify and downplay female CVD. Since the 1950s when it first became the topic of medical studies, the research has always had a male bias. Medical research has a history of using male test subjects by default, an error that has had a knock-on effect for decades. This didn’t change until 2001 when the United States Institute of Medicine published an extensive study that confirmed ‘a prevalent gender bias in all areas of medical research and urged reform’. Whilst there have been improvements, women still only make up 24% of all participants in heart-related studies, which is a major issue as CVD affects men and women differently at every level, including symptoms, risk factors and outcomes.

What we have is an unconscious conspiracy of many factors; lack of medical research for women, lack of media portrayal and lack of general knowledge about how symptoms manifest. It’s dangerous to be a woman for many reasons and this is just another string in society’s bow of sexism. It may be unintentional, but medicine and media have combined to up women’s risk of death from CVD, and Carrie Fisher is another loss.

So what can you do? Educate yourself and others on how the symptoms of a heart attack differ between men and women. Act quickly if you think you or someone around you may be suffering one. And continue to fight sexism and take down evil empires. That’s what Carrie would do.

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