In years past, Valentine’s Day has been a fun chance to explore the more lighthearted aspects of science, as pertains to matters of the heart (such as our post on the neurobiology of love and dating). This year, we use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to talk about a different, more serious matter pertaining to our hearts — keeping them healthy. And while blogs, magazines and popular media provide men with no shortage of ideas about what to shower the many women in their lives with on Valentine’s Day, they provide little coverage of the biggest silent killer and danger to women every day: heart disease. So this year, join us in Going Red For Women and learning more about an issue truly close to our hearts. For more, click “continue reading.”
Fact: more women will die of heart disease than all cancers combined. Scary, isn’t it? With the “pink”-washing of virtually all consumer products (and even some sports teams!) every October, one would surely think that breast cancer is the biggest threat to women’s health. Indeed, 48% of women do. Yet despite the very real, and deadly, threat that breast cancer continues to pose for women, according to the American Heart Association, only 1 in 30 women will die of breast cancer, while 1 in 3 will die of cardiovascular disease. 500,000 women die each year in the United States (1 per minute!) of cardiovascular disease, making it the number one killer of women—our colleagues, our friends and loved ones. [Download a full fact sheet here.] But there’s good news! 80% of all heart attacks are preventable, with the majority of heart disease precursors (including diet, weight and sedentary lifestyle) under our control.
If you are absorbing this sobering information for the first time, you’re not alone. At a recent Los Angeles event for an AHA cause called Go Red For Women, I learned many of these facts for the first time as well. Even in the medical community, the rates of misdiagnosis and underdiagnosed, with women’s heart disease symptoms often dismissed as stress. The power of organizations such as Go Red For Women is enormous. In addition to helping spread the necessary information about heart risks to women online and at local events all across the country, GRFW provides educational tools for physicians to better treat female patients for cardiovascular disease. In Los Angeles County, they were instrumental in championing ordinances that removed smoking from beaches and junk food from schools. Nationally, they’ve championed legislation such as the HEART For Women Act, federal legislation introduced to Congress February 12, 2009 to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease and stroke in women. They are also working with the entertainment and media industries to produce more pop culture materials such as this short video called “Just a Little Heart Attack starring actress Elizabeth Banks:”
ScriptPhD.com caught up with Dr. Vyshali Rao, a cardiologist that has led the efforts of the Los Angeles-based Go Red For Women campaign, to ask her about the importance of raising awareness for women’s heart issues.
ScriptPhD: Dr. Rao, tell us about what motivated you to get involved with Go Red For Women?
Vyshali Rao: At first I got involved on my own, with the American Heart Association, because of my dad, who is a cardiac survivor and had a bypass operation when he was 86 years old. Being a cardiologist myself, it’s important tying it as much to health care as possible. And it turns out, the hospital that I work at, Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, CA, is the Los Angeles sponsor for the Go Red For Women campaign. Through myt work at Huntington, I’ve become the medical director of the women’s heart program here, and through that, have worked closely with the Go Red For Women campaign. It really has, for the last three or four years, been a really exciting experience for me, because you meet so many women from all walks of life—different ethnicities, different backgrounds. The commonality of it, though, is they are all [impacted the same way cardiovascularly], which is what we are trying to get out there.
SPhD: Why is this an issue just now coming to the forefront in the media?
VR: In this day and age, it’s interesting to note that cardiovascular disease remains [women’s] #1 health risk. The majority of people will think it’s breast cancer, or cervical cancer, but no one thinks, “OK, I’m going to die of a heart attack or a stroke or cardiovascular disease.” So, I think that for the last few years, the Go Red For Women campaign has really tried to push that information so that more women get involved and get everyone educated about it.
SPhD: Do you feel, fairly or unfairly, that there has sometimes been an overemphasis in the media on other causes or issues? Do you think they could be doing more to highlight women’s cardiovascular health?
VR: Yes. Obviously, in today’s day and age, whoever gets their message out the loudest and attracts the most attention gets it. At this point, there’s so much advertising and so much media for breast cancer and AIDS, which are both issues we need to get everyone educated about. But, heart disease seems to be a little bit slower to get attracted to, and we don’t have the big budget like some of the other [causes and organizations] do. And we don’t have as much money directed at heart disease. The majority—80%–of all the money that comes into the American Medical Association is directed towards research. So, we don’t have big budgets for advertising or media campaigns, so sometimes our message gets lost. Through volunteers and through programs and events sponsored by organizations such as Go Red For Women, we are hoping that this will change, and that heart disease and the American Heart Association will get the attention that it deserves.
SPhD: Do you feel that this campaign and discussion extends somewhat beyond women’s health to our health as a nation and steps we can all take to make our hearts healthier?
VR: Yes, absolutely. The goal of the campaign is not to just empower women. It’s to get everyone educated and to understand the risks for cardiovascular disease. The best thing about cardiovascular disease is that the majority of it is preventable! There’s not a lot of diseases that you could say that about. The majority of the risk factors for heart disease—hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol, obesity, sedentary lifestyle—they are all potentially preventable. If people can get educated, get off the couch and exercise, we won’t have to suffer from cardiovascular disease as much as we are.
SPhD: If someone is reading this and wondering what they can do to get involved, beyond their own health, what would you tell them?
VR: That’s the great thing. You don’t have to have any money to get involved. The American Heart Association largely works through volunteers. So the majority of the events that we have, like our ‘Heart’ walks, they’re always looking for volunteers, whether it’s to learn CPR, or educate people about it. Now, they launched a new program called ‘School Gardens’ where we actually go to inner-city communities, educate the kids about fresh vegetables, plan the fresh vegetables, harvest them, and then cook with them. You’d be surprised how many of these kids have never eaten a fresh tomato! There’s so many things that have nothing to do with money and people can get involved.
Feel motivated to go red? Here are some suggestions for you and your Valentine that will get your hearts pumping, and leave them healthy for many Valentine’s Days to come.
1. Know the risks for, warning signs and types of cardiovascular disease. Educate yourself.
2. Get involved! Volunteer in your community for an American Heart Association event or training. If there is a girlfriend, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend or other significant woman in your life, donate the time and effort to spreading the word about Go Red For Women and heart health. Let’s stop heart disease from being the biggest killer of women together.
3. Take care of your heart. We’re not speaking metaphorically here, lovebirds. From heart-healthy recipes, to stress management, to managing physical activity and weight management, the American Heart Association offers a plethora of ideas and guides to forming heart-healthy habits.
4. Impact the next generation. I cannot stress strongly enough how much the problems plaguing Western nations as a whole (and that contribute as precursors to heart disease) are preventable through dietary changes and exercise. But changing decades of unhealthy eating, especially in lower-income neighborhoods without immediate access to fresh fruits and vegetables, will take a collective effort. Programs such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the AHA’s Teaching Gardens will go a long way towards planting seeds for a lifetime of good health. Take a look at this incredibly moving video about the impact the program has already made:
And lastly, since today is the day we celebrate those that have captured our hearts, here are 10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart. We think it’s worth protecting!
Happy Valentine’s Day from ScriptPhD.com.
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