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Heart disease claims the lives of more women than any other illness — more than all types of cancer combined — so let’s set straight the myth that heart disease is a man’s disease. While an estimated 80 percent of heart disease is preventable, cardiovascular disease among women remains an invisible disease in the national conversation. It’s time we focus more attention on the unacceptable number of mothers, daughters and sisters we have lost, and spread awareness of this silent killer of women.
Every 80 seconds a woman dies of heart disease; that’s 400,000 women each year. Tragically, my own mother was one of them. One week after learning she had high blood pressure, my mom had a stroke in front of me when I was 15. Her death, like those of so many other women, was preventable. At the time of her death, her prescription for blood pressure medication was still in her purse.
Heart disease affects women differently than men, and it’s imperative that clinicians — nurses, physicians assistants and doctors — be equipped with the knowledge that can help guide more effective treatment and prevention options. As conversations in government focus on health, we must work with federal and state leaders to make sure education about women’s heart health is a national priority.
Until these actions occur, we need to make progress the old-fashioned way, reaching one woman — and the men who care about them — at a time. Across the country, working with communities and campuses, we should be conducting biometric screenings, starting with young women. In February, at Ohio State University, we hosted biometric screenings for faculty, staff and 500 students; and since 2013, we have reached out to more than 150 health sciences colleges and professional as well as community organizations to conduct screenings on more than 54,000 Americans nationwide.
In addition, in partnership with the Women’s Heart Alliance, we shared our model for heart checks with colleges and schools of nursing and hospitals in Nashville, Tenn., so they in turn can screen their young women and caregivers. The model consists of large-scale screenings and education sessions using nursing faculty and students as the primary screeners. Screenings include a blood pressure measurement; a height, weight, heart rate, and body mass index calculation; and a stress screen and lipid panel in select individuals with certain cardiovascular risk factors. The goals are to identify early cardiovascular disease and refer those individuals for treatment.
We also must continue to encourage students and young people to adopt healthy lifestyles: Be active, eat healthy, avoid tobacco and manage stress. Eighty percent of heart disease is preventable with these four healthy lifestyle behaviors. This model needs to be replicated so we can reach greater numbers of women.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of learning more about this illness and passing that information along to family members, friends and colleagues. A little knowledge can go a long way. For example, women often don’t realize they’re having a heart attack because their symptoms, often taking the form of nausea or back pain, are different from those that men experience. That may be why women wait an average of 54 hours — more than three times as long as men — from the time they start experiencing symptoms to the moment they seek treatment. That time lag translates into far too many avoidable deaths.
I urge everyone, especially health care providers, to be proactive in teaching their patients how heart disease affects women and men differently, and counseling everyone to prevent it with healthy lifestyle behaviors.
Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer and dean of the Ohio State University College of Nursing.
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