Wear Red: Protect the Heart of a Woman

by NANCY COLOBONG SMITH, MN, ANP-BC

    In the media and in the stores there is excellent marketing for reasons to support breast health and wear pink. For all those who have fought, are fighting, surviving, thriving, and for those who fought bravely and lost, I support the power of pink and all that it symbolizes.  

Do you know what red symbolizes?  Red is the color of roses, love, passion, and anger.  It is an alert, like a big stop sign.  Red is not to be ignored.  Red also symbolizes women’s fight against Heart Disease.   One in three women will develop heart disease, and most realize neither the statistic nor the symptoms. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is the number 1 killer for women over the age of 25 in the United States, and has been for years.   Although the risk of heart disease is higher than breast cancer, we don’t see red in our media and stores. Wear red, learn how to take care of your heart, and share this information with all the special women in your life.    

 

WOMEN’S HEARTS ARE SPECIAL

    Women are special.  I have taken pride in my womanhood since I was a young woman, and continue to do so as a wife, mother, aunt, cousin, sister, friend, and healthcare provider.  I am reminded daily of the strength, intelligence, tenacity, compassion, and bravery that women I know demonstrate. Although I would not go so far to say that men and women come from different planets, there are differences in how our bodies exhibit disease which is important for everyone to be aware of.  

    Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a condition in which plaque builds up in the inside of your coronary arteries.  These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood that the body requires to function.  Over time, the plaque can harden and reduce blood flow through the blood vessels, limiting function.  The plaque may also rupture, occlude a vessel, and interrupt all blood flow to a section of the body, like part of the heart.  Without adequate blood supply, CHD can lead to complications such as a heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI), chest pain (angina), heart failure, and irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).  When blood flow is occluded to part of the brain, this is called a stroke or a brain attack.     

Until the last decade, the majority of the research on heart disease primarily focused on middle-aged, Caucasian men.  As a middle aged, woman of color, I – and a wide demographic of people – was not represented in this research. More recent research has demonstrated that CHD often occurs in women approximately 10 years later than men, and women experience the symptoms that are less well known.  Research has also shown that, compared to men, women are not as aware of their heart disease risk, are less likely to call 911, and twice as likely to die the year after a heart attack.  

The table below shows the signs of heart attacks for women versus men. It’s important to note that women and men may both experience symptoms from either list, although current research shows that women, more often than men, experience vague, atypical symptoms.  It is challenging to identify CHD in women when the symptoms may be ignored or explained by another cause, and when women are less aware of the symptoms of heart disease.  The women I know are very good at taking care of their work, their families, and their friends.  We all struggle to some degree in taking care of ourselves, and wearing red reminds me of this—that we need to help each other take care of ourselves. 

Heart Attack Symptoms - MEN Heart Attack Symptoms - WOMEN
  • Chest pain or pressure in the sub-sternal area of the chest
  • Pain at rest
  • Pain down left arm and shoulder
  • Weakness
  • Pain in chest, upper back, jaw or neck
  • Shortness of breath
  • Flu-like symptoms: nausea, vomiting, or cold sweats
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Feelings of anxiety, loss of appetite, or general malaise

(Above video: feat. Elizabeth Banks)

(Above video: feat. Lucy Lawless)

 

PROTECT MY HEART

    Our hearts are special and need to be protected.  The first step is to find out what are your risk factors.  There are some factors that you have no control over like your family history, ethnicity, or age. The uncontrollable risk factors in combination with lifestyle choices influence overall heart disease risk.  Small changes in lifestyle made now may make a significant difference in your long-term health in the future.   The first step is to “know your numbers”, and do what you can today so that you can enjoy the activities and people in your life to the fullest. 

    The numbers you need to know are the ones that give a snapshot of your health today.  These numbers include your current weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.  Below is a brief introduction to these risk factors.  For more details on each of these factors, go to this website:  https://www.goredforwomen.org/home/know-your-risk/factors-that-increase-your-risk/ 

Before making any drastic changes to your activity or diet, meet with your health care provider to determine if there are any special considerations for you.    

  • Cholesterol
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Physical Activity
  • Weight

Cholesterol comes in two forms—good and bad.  Good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein or HDL) levels should be kept higher since studies show that having a level of 60 mg/dL or greater may protect against heart disease.  Bad Cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) is the type of cholesterol that you want to keep low.  Bad cholesterol can clog your arteries and lead to heart attacks and stroke.  Ideally LDL levels are less than 130 mg/dL or if other risk factors for heart disease are present, the goal is less than 100 mg/dL.

High blood pressure is a silent killer.  It often has no symptoms and when not managed can increased the risk for heart disease and stroke.  High blood pressure is not related to mood or personality. High blood pressure is a condition that makes the heart work harder and when left untreated causing scarring and damage to the arteries.  This damage leads to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, eye damage, heart failure, and clogging of the arteries (atherosclerosis).  Depending on your risk factors and age, normal blood pressure is considered 120/80 or less.  Lifestyle changes that help manage and prevent high blood pressure include a low salt, low saturated fat, and low cholesterol diet.  Other helpful changes include moderation of alcohol and caffeine intake, and if overweight, moderate weight loss.  Some studies have shown improvement in blood pressure with a 5% decrease in weight.  

Diabetes is another silent killer and comes in primarily two forms.  Type 1 diabetes, which may occur at any age although is most associated with children, is when the pancreas stops making insulin.  Insulin is a hormone important for taking the glucose from blood into the cells of the body.  Type 2 diabetes occurs when there is a decrease in insulin production by the pancreas or when the body develops resistance to the insulin that is produced.  When diabetes is left untreated, several complications may develop such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.  Type 1 diabetes is treated by giving insulin injections.  Depending on the severity of type 2 diabetes, treatment may include lifestyle changes, pills that encourage insulin production or storage of glucose, or insulin injections.

    Smoking Cessation, Weight, and Physical Activity are lifestyle changes.  Smoking doubles the risk of heart disease, and women who smoke are 25% more likely to develop heart disease compared to men who smoke.  Carrying extra body weight puts a strain on your heart, raises blood pressure, may increase bad cholesterol levels and decrease good cholesterol.  Minimal physical activity increases risk of heart disease.  Physical activity does not have to be a long run or working out in a gym.  Walking is an excellent, cheap and effective activity to start enhancing your health.    

You can use the online Risk Calculator to help determine where to focus your efforts and as a starting point for conversations with your health care professional.

 

FROM MY HEART TO YOURS

    Wear red and show your passion for life and your support of women.  Learn how to recognize signs of heart attack in women, share the Elizabeth Banks video, and laugh with those you care about. You never know whose life it may save.  Know your numbers, review what risk factors you have for heart disease, talk to your health care provider, and choose to take care of yourself.  Women are special and our hearts are worth it. 

 

MORE RESOURCES

--American Heart Association on Managing Heart Disease Risk at Any Age

--National Institute for Health (NIH) on Heart Disease in Women

--Women's Cardiovascular Center

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ADDITIONAL STATISTICS, QUOTED FROM THE CDC

·       Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a "man's disease," around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States. Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only 54% of women recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer.

·         Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States. Among Hispanic women, heart disease and cancer cause roughly the same number of deaths each year. For American Indian or Alaska Native and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer.

·         About 5.8% of all white women, 7.6% of black women, and 5.6% of Mexican American women have coronary heart disease.

·         Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease.

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Nancy C. Smith is an Adult Nurse Practitioner – Board Certified.  As a woman with a strong family history of heart disease and related diseases, her passion for heart health started over 20 years ago.  She was writing a paper on women and heart disease and found only two resources available in her large, urban library system.  Although more resources and research are available today, the disparity between outcomes for women and men with heart attacks continues to be wide.