Editor’s note: This is one in a series of Cardiovascular Genome-Phenome Study Discovery grants awarded by the American Heart Association to speed personalized treatments and prevention for heart disease.

A woman’s risk for heart disease is different from a man’s. Although the reason isn’t known, a research team at Johns Hopkins University thinks the answer is in the genes.

Having an apple-shaped body, being overweight, having elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, and having lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol could all work against you, eventually giving rise to blockages in arteries and resulting in heart attacks, said Dhananjay Vaidya, Ph.D., one of 10 researchers each recently awarded $160,000 by the American Heart Association, with funding from AstraZeneca, to study new ways to individualize the treatment and prevention of heart disease.

“We believe that some of the genes that are responsible for these early changes may work differently in women and men,” said Vaidya, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology.

Finding those genetic variations will pave the way for more personalized strategies to prevent and treat those risks, he said, improving the health of both men and women.

“Most advice regarding healthy lifestyle, nutrition and exercise is good for both women and men, but we believe that some methods to prevent and treat heart attacks would be different in women than in men,” he said.

Vaidya is mining data from two major studies: the Framingham Heart Study, which tracked heart disease in three generations of New Englanders starting in 1948, and the Jackson Heart Study, which looked for links between heart disease and race in African-Americans.

Body shape, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and glucose in thousands of people have already been measured, and tests done on millions of genetic markers. Now they’re sorting through the trove of data to uncover genetic distinctions between men and women and how those variations influence heart disease risk.

“Until very recently heart disease was thought of as a man’s disease,” he said. “We have now realized that this is not true — it is a different disease that’s very much present in women.”

For example, women and men have different nutritional needs. Each sex may therefore use and store sugar and fats differently, Vaidya said.

“If we find genes that handle sugar and fat use and storage differently in women than men, we will have peeked into some of the secrets of life itself.”

Read other stories in this series.