It’s National Wear Red Day, making the 10th year of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign, dedicated to raising awareness of heart disease’s devastating impact on women.
Heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. Since 1984, it has claimed the lives of more women than men each year—and the gender gap in survival continues to widen.
Yet one in five American women is aware that heart disease is the leading threat to women—claiming the lives of nearly 300,000 women a year, nearly ten times as many as breast cancer does (39,000).
An astonishing 80 percent of women ages 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHBLI). However, the good news is that there are proven strategies to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
Most women—and many healthcare providers—still think that heart disease is mainly a man’s disease, says Amy Doneen, ARNP, medical director of the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane, Washington.
“Women’s heart-related symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed, both by medical providers and women themselves,” says Doneen. For example, as I recently reported, Rosie O’Donnell waited a full day to seek medical care after suffering a heart attack, because she ignored the warning signs, unaware of her danger.
The former talk-show host was concerned enough to google women’s heart attack symptoms, but even after discovering that she had many of them, she refused to believe that she could be having a heart attack at age 50. When she finally did get help, doctors discovered that she had 99 percent block in her LAD coronary artery, a type of heart attack called “the widow-maker.”
Every year, 435,000 American women suffer heart attacks; 83,000 of them are under age 65; and 35,000 are under age 55. Younger women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal, according to Women’s Heart Foundation.
African-American women have double the rate of fatal heart disease as their white counterparts, according to an alarming study published in Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012. The study analyzed health data from more than 24,000 people ages 45 and older.
What’s behind this deadly disparity? Part of the problem is a higher rate of risk factors, says Nakela Cook, MD, a cardiologist and spokesperson for the NHBLI’s The Heart Truth campaign, a national campaign for women that includes such partners as Centric, a division of BET Networks.
Nearly 80 percent of black women are overweight or obese, increasing the risk not only of heart disease but also a host of other conditions, including stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers,” says Dr. Cook. “If you're overweight, even a small amount of weight loss will help lower your risk.”
“African American women are more likely to die from heart disease at younger ages than any other group,” adds Paxton Baker, EVP and General Manager of Centric. “Couple that outrageous statistic with the fact that 9 of 10 African Americans with high blood pressure will suffer from early heart disease – partnering with The Heart Truth to raise awareness on the disease was a natural marriage for Centric.”
Nearly two-thirds of heart attack deaths in women occur in women with no history of chest pain. Because most heart attack research has focused on men, adds Doneen, “symptoms that commonly strike women are called ‘atypical,’ when they’re only atypical in men.”
“Lack of awareness of women’s warning signs—and not getting health care soon enough—are major reasons why heart attacks kill more women than men every year,” emphasizes Doneen. In fact, 50 percent of women who suffer a heart attack don’t call 911. But doing so if any of these symptoms strike could save your life:
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