On The Table

A collection of knowledge-based articles to inspire overall wellness.

Women's Heart Health at Forefront of First Lady's Agenda

The heart is one of the most important parts of the body, but often gets the short stick when it comes to diet.

Women's Heart Health at Forefront of First Lady's Agenda

If you've been following much celebrity action on television this month, you may have seen a lot of famous gals running around in red dresses throughout February.

It started on Feb. 6, and it seems to have caught on and stuck. But it's not about extending Valentine's Day. It's about extending lives. The red dresses represent a health trend as much as a fashion trend.

At least, that's what the First Lady is hoping.

The red dress is a symbol of heart health for women, part of the "Heart Truth" campaign, the National Institutes of Health initiative to tell American women the hard truth about their cardiovascular condition. The First Lady is traveling the country carrying the news about women and heart disease.

And overall, it's not that great. About 2,600 Americans die of heart disease every day. That's about one every 34 seconds. And even though more of them are women than men, most women still don't know that heart disease is their number one killer.

The tremendous energy that women focused on addressing breast cancer beginning in the 1970s made a real difference in survival rates for women. Not only have deaths from breast cancer been reduced to almost nothing, the effort and attention on breast cancer helped raise awareness about all cancers. More women get screened and their cancers are caught earlier than ever before.

But we need that same kind of focused effort on heart disease now, which kills more women than all cancers combined. And the fact is that 30 percent of heart attacks in women are due simply to excess weight and obesity.

Yet because so many people, including doctors, still don't think of heart disease as a woman' illness, many women die needlessly because their symptoms simply aren't recognized, even when they become critical.

Women often have what's called a silent heart attack, one without the usual dramatic symptoms. Studies show that the symptoms women do experience, like fatigue, trouble sleeping and shortness of breath, are already so common, particularly for overweight women, that even if they suddenly get worse, many women don't realize they're actually having a heart attack, so they try to just "push through it" or at best, sit it out.

Add to that stoic tendency the fact that women don't get screened enough for their heart health risk factors. But if you're overweight, you should have these screenings anyway. Abnormalities in your blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure could be your first signs that trouble is coming, long before you start to actually feel anything uncomfortable, and that's true not only for heart disease, but for the other ailments that overweight causes, including diabetes.

But in the case of coronary heart disease in particular, the screenings could really be all the difference, because while all heart disease risk can be improved by controlling lifestyle factors, coronary heart disease is almost entirely preventable this way, so it's important to get a doctor to give those tests and advise you what to do to get your numbers into a healthy range.

Of course, the most important things to do are things you can do all on your own, like eating better and getting some exercise. The first lady has been telling crowds at Heart Truth events around the country to just get up and get going!