According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, accounting for approximately one of every four female deaths. What’s more, 64 percent of women who die from coronary heart disease have no prior symptoms.
“Heart disease isn’t even on their radar,” says Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, cardiologist and founder of the Women’s Heart Clinic at Mayo Clinic. She adds that, for years, the common thought was that heart disease only affected men. That mindset has only recently started to change.
“The knowledge has increased exponentially since the ’90s, but we still have a [long way to go]… If you didn’t include women in cardiovascular research up until the ’90s or really up until the mid-2000s, we’re just playing catch up.”
Dr. Hayes says it’s never too early for women to know their heart disease risk factors, such as family history, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
She also wants women to know the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, which include chest pain, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, heart flutters, paleness, clammy sweating or discomfort or pressure in the center of the chest.
Access to care
Nearly 48 million women in the United States have heart disease or are at risk for it.
“Lifestyle is the single most important thing that women can [change] to prevent heart disease from even impacting them,” says Dr. Hayes, encouraging women to eat right, exercise and not smoke.
She serves on the scientific advisory council for the nonprofit WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.
“WomenHeart strives to advocate both for women getting the proper care and access to care. [Women need to] get connected with health care providers that actually take them seriously and provide the best sex- and gender-focused care we can give them,” says Dr. Hayes.
In 2002, WomenHeart launched peer-led support networks called WomenHeart Champions for women living with heart disease. The Champions are heart health advocates in their communities.
Dr. Hayes has trained all 850 WomenHeart Champions, including Florence Champagne, who had a heart attack six years ago.
“I was experiencing pain on and off for almost a year,” says Champagne, who had a 99 percent blockage of her main artery, requiring immediate surgery.
At the time of her heart attack, she didn’t have insurance. Her cardiologist told her that she hadn’t been getting the proper care, probably because of that lack of insurance.
Now 59, Champagne, who coordinates the WomenHeart of Southern Maryland, is inspiring other women at speaking engagements and health fairs. She’s also testified at a congressional briefing in support of legislation to make routine health care screenings more accessible for women of color and those in underserved communities.
“The speaking out helps because people just call me, especially after they realize they have some heart-related issues,” says Champagne, who does yoga, attends exercise classes twice a week and eats healthy. “They call and say, ‘I’m glad you told me about that because now I experience this symptom and I went and followed up.’”