When it comes to their hearts, women have a serious disconnect. In spite of the fact—fact, not something debatable like the effects of climate change—that heart disease and stroke are the number one killer of women, most of us say we don’t feel a “personal connection” to heart disease. It’s not like us to be so obtuse.
Research represented at the ongoing American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015 on a survey designed and conducted by the Women’s Heart Alliance revealed some startling statistics. Women who know another woman with heart disease, which shouldn’t be a rarity, were only 25 percent more likely to be concerned about heart disease for themselves than a woman who knew no other woman with the disease. Worse, only 19 percent of women who know another woman with heart disease are more likely than women who don’t known someone with heart disease to discuss the disease with a doctor. And the reason for the latter is counterproductive and staggers the mind:
“We are stalled on women’s awareness of heart disease, partly because women say they put off going to the doctor until they’ve lost a few pounds. This is clearly a gendered issue,” C. Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center and professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical.
Our healthcare providers are complicit in this tragic situation. The survey revealed that doctors are, indeed, more often focused on a woman’s weight rather than honing in on their other cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as high cholesterol or elevated blood pressure. Men are much more likely to be told when these factors are at dangerous levels. The doctors office must become a safe zone, where women can receive the counseling they need around weight issues so that dangerous risks are not ignored.
Women also have distorted perceptions about the consequences of heart disease. Too many believe heart disease causes a quick death, not realizing that heart disease encompasses more than having a heart attack and that a heart attack itself does not always mean a quick death. Heart disease can lead to decreased quality of life over long periods of time. Unenlightened women fear breast cancer more than heart disease, saying illogical things such as “I’d rather go quick with a heart attack, than lose my breasts.” For one thing, heart disease does not just lead to a heart attack. Heart disease includes stroke, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, aortic aneurysms, venous thrombosis, and peripheral artery disease. Moreover, heart attacks are survivable, and the aftermath of a heart attack affects the body and mind in profound ways.
Women need to speak up, and speak to each other, about heart disease, and not just in February. The American Heart Association, the National Institutes of Health, and other organizations strive to bring voice to this silent killer with campaigns such as Go Red for Women and Heart Truth Women. Yet, only 27 percent of women can name a woman in their lives with heart disease and only 11 percent can name a woman who has died from heart disease. We are not talking about the health predator taking us down at alarming rates.
Women love power, and we have the power to take this disease down in its tracks. By some accounts, 90 percent of heart disease is preventable with attention to how you eat, how much alcohol you drink, how much exercise you get, and whether you smoke or not.
Come on ladies, this is not like us. Lean in. Face your risk for heart disease and make changes in your lifestyle to be here for you and for your family. Put the cigarettes down. Eat one less cupcake. Have one less cocktail during happy hour. Grab your girlfriend and take a walk.
In 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology developed a risk calculator to help identify women at risk for heart disease. It provides your A-risk score, and uses your age, sex, race, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood pressure medication use, diabetes status and smoking status to get a 10-year and lifetime risk score. We must be screened for heart disease. Talk to your health care provider about your A-risk score or download the CV Risk Calculator app. I’m in; what about you?
“Talk to your doctor about heart disease. Every woman 40 and older needs to get their A-risk score. If you’re under 40 you still need to know your blood pressure and cholesterol,” Dr. Bairey Merz.