It is no longer a “man’s world.” Women are breaking glass ceilings across industries—business, politics, medicine and academics and so on. Today, women can do anything men can do. As a father to a beautiful little girl, it makes me happy that she’ll have many more opportunities than were possible for women, even a decade ago. But even though times have changed and women have more opportunities, sadly they are still disproportionately affected by heart disease.
The stereotype that heart disease is a “man’s disease” is false. Heart disease is America’s number one killer! This malady is also the most prevalent cause of death for women. It is responsible for 1 in 3 deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every minute and devastates families.
So as a father and a doctor with concern for patients and families, this problem is especially troubling. One of my greatest passions as a family physician is safeguarding the health and well-being of my patients. And daily, I learn of hard-working women who, in an effort to nurture family members, neglect the warning signs of heart disease: shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, upper back pressure, pressure or pain in the upper chest or lower abdomen, dizziness and/or fainting. Often, women ignore these symptoms until it’s too late. Fear of the unknown, lack of time to see a doctor, or caring for family members are some reasons most cited for women’s failure to acknowledge these signs of illness. This is extremely unfortunate as a significant number of heart attacks as well as strokes can be treated and possibly prevented with more attention to the most important possession of all—one’s health.
And heart disease doesn’t discriminate. It affects women of all ethnicities. Of African-American women ages 20 and older, 48 percent have cardiovascular disease. Yet, only 20 percent believe they are at risk. Hispanic women are likely to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than Caucasian women but only 3 in 10 Hispanic women say they’ve been informed that they are at a higher risk. At the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, we’re working to educate all communities about the importance of putting our hearts first and making the lifestyle changes to improve our health. We’ve come a long way in raising awareness about heart disease and stroke but there’s still more work to be done.
February is American Heart Month and as a national volunteer spokesperson for the American Heart Association, I have presented information in practically all forms of social and traditional media to raise awareness about heart disease. These messages may have fallen on deaf ears because listeners may not experience symptoms, they don’t recognize they symptoms they have as warning signs, or they are too busy with life’s daily tasks.
Eighty percent of cardiac events can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes. That’s why it’s so important to take time to make simple lifestyle changes that done over time with consistency can provide continued focus on a healthy life. It’s a new year and I’m sure many ladies were well intentioned in January. Gym memberships increased along with resolutions to lose weight, exercise more often, and eat healthily. New Year’s resolutions often lose steam by February with many people succumbing to the pressures of life- consuming high-calorie comfort foods, drinking more alcoholic beverages, and ignoring physical fitness activities. Before you know it the old behaviors have reared their ugly heads and a sense of failure looms over you. Focusing on one behavior at a time is better than a laundry list of resolutions bound to fail in the short run. Changing behaviors takes time and patience, but it can be done!
Although this message is for anyone at increased risk for heart disease, it is especially directed to ladies because the incidence and resultant mortality rate is so high for women. Please literally take this to heart: The road to health is a journey not a sprint and implementing small, simple, sustainable changes can build a strong foundation for wellness and longevity. Visit GoRedForWomen.org to learn more about women and heart disease.
Dr. Rani Whitfield is a board certified family physician and fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice with a certificate of added qualification in Sports Medicine. He practices in Baton Rouge, LA and is known as Tha Hip Hop Doc as he uses music and medicine to educate youth and young adults on health issues. He is a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement and the proud father of Raina.