One year after their heart attack, women had worse physical functioning, poorer mental functioning and a lower quality of life than men who survived their heart attack, the study found.
The researchers can only speculate on the reasons for these results, "but we're definitely finding that women are generally already in worse health than men when their heart attack takes place," said study lead researcher Rachel Dreyer.
"We're talking about relatively young patients, so the finding is really disturbing and worrying," said Dreyer, a post-doctoral research associate in cardiovascular medicine at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.
The researchers looked to see how roughly 3,500 American and Spanish adults, 55 and younger, fared a year after suffering an initial heart attack between 2008 and 2012.
Overall, the vast majority of the study participants were white and more than two-thirds were women. As a group, men and women were on par in terms of being smokers or having high blood pressure, the study authors said.
However, women were far more likely than men to be diabetic (39 percent versus 27 percent) at the time of their heart attack. Women were also slightly more likely than men to be obese (51 percent versus 45 percent), more than twice as likely to have had a prior stroke, and nearly three times as likely to have chronic lung disease. Depression was also twice as common among women, the investigators found.
Dreyer and her colleagues were scheduled to present their findings Monday at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Baltimore. The results should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The study didn't include patients who died of heart attack, which could have altered the overall portrait of life after heart attack, the authors noted.
Factors other than poor pre-attack health could also have played a role in heart attack outcomes. Those could include women having less access to health care and social support than men, while also shouldering a larger burden of work and family responsibilities, the researchers noted.
"I would say that women may really need to focus on their lifestyle choices," said Dreyer. "It's a conversation that women should have with their [general practitioner]. These are women in the prime of their life, so it's important that they focus on their own health and prevention."
The point is to prevent a heart attack from happening in the first place. If that's not possible, then a healthier recovery should be the goal, Dreyer said.
These are "important" findings, said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a representative of the American Heart Association.
"While younger women are less likely to have [heart attack] compared to younger men, prior studies have shown that younger women have significantly higher risk of [death]," he said.
"Prior studies have [also] suggested that women, particularly younger women, are less likely to be diagnosed and rapidly treated for their [heart attack]," Fonarow noted.
"These data suggest that there may be longer-term consequences on the health status of these younger women," he added. The study also highlights important areas for quality improvement efforts and further study, he said.
For more information on heart disease and women, visit the U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.