If Barbra Streisand had her way, all women in America would know that heart disease, known as cardiovascular disease (CVD), is their leading killer. It kills more women than all cancers combined, yet only half of women know that, she says.
Streisand has advocated for gender equity in heart health for more than a decade, though her passion to fight gender inequality dates to her youth. For too long, she says, there was little understanding of women’s CVD in the scientific and medical communities. A large part of the problem stems from gender disparities that span across research, diagnosis and treatment.
“We all have been culturally exposed to the typical ‘Hollywood heart attack’ through movies and television,” says Streisand. “A man grabs his chest in severe pain and has pain running down his left arm.”
Today, we know that women with CVD often have different symptoms than men. Women’s symptoms can include shortness of breath, nausea, upper body pain, extreme fatigue, indigestion, chest pains, and others. But because these differences were unknown for a long time, sex-related disparities in diagnosis and treatment grew.
Voice for change
In 2007, Streisand read an article about the gender inequality in medicine that spotlighted the differences in women’s heart health care, research, and public awareness compared to men. Her realization that women were not receiving the same quality of care as men — which explained why women were dying of CVD at disproportionate rates — appalled her and made her decide to use her voice for change.
Streisand started working with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, a brilliant researcher and clinician working on female-pattern heart disease. First, Streisand supported a regenerative medicine research fund, then she underwrote the Barbra Streisand Women’s Cardiovascular Research and Education Program in 2008.
Her support, advocacy, and generous philanthropic commitment resulted in the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center, focused on providing leading edge healthcare to women with heart disease, developing research leading to new treatments, and training doctors about women’s CVD.
Streisand soon learned that it wasn’t just doctors and scientists who weren’t talking about women’s heart health. Neither were women themselves.
“Many women don’t want people to know about their heart issues. They do not discuss it,” says Streisand. “They seem ashamed or feel weak because of it.”
In 2014, Streisand and Bairey Merz launched the Women’s Heart Alliance (WHA), a national advocacy and education effort fighting for women’s heart health equity. They were joined by businessman and philanthropist, Ronald Perelman, Dr. Holly Andersen, and New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“To achieve heart health equity we needed to expand the research being done and to raise public awareness about heart health issues facing women,” says Streisand.
WHA aims to increase funding dedicated to gender equity in research. For example, the number of women participating in research and clinical trials has increased significantly from less than 10 percent to one-third.
“I also fought to get female mice in clinical research,” says Streisand. “Why use male mice to study female heart disease?”
And because of WHA’s advocacy, study of coronary microvascular dysfunction — which affects tiny blood vessels in the hearts of women with CVD — is now an approved research and funding area, and the Department of Defense is now funding research studies of heart disease in women. The NIH now requires research and clinical trials to report results by gender.
“Ten years ago, 1 in 3 women were dying of heart disease,” says Streisand. “Now, that number is 1 in 4. Women are finally being valued more.”
Now, Streisand is pushing for more research and understanding of COVID-19’s effect on CVD. Research shows that effects on the heart following COVID can be serious. People with pre-existing health conditions, such as heart disease, are at a greater risk of severe symptoms if they contract COVID-19.
Looking ahead, Streisand wants universal CVD screening for women, more funding for federally funded women’s health centers of excellence, and an analysis of the effect of sex and gender bias on federal funding for disease research.
She’s grateful for progress but laments that too many women are still dying from CVD. “We have more work to do to reach our goal of equity in the research, prevention, and treatment of women’s CVD,” she says.
About Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand is a multi-talented, award winning director, actor, singer and writer. In recognition of her outstanding talent and the many creative projects throughout her career, she has received numerous Awards and Distinctions. They include Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe, Peabody, National Medal of the Arts, American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, The Kennedy Center Honor, France’s Legion d’Honneur and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She is a true citizen artist with deep commitments to equality, justice, civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, environmental protection, and equal opportunities to lessen the grave income disparity faced by America’s poor. Philanthropy has been a major part of her life. In 1986 she started the Streisand Foundation and has spent millions of dollars providing grants to organizations working in these areas.