The Heart Truth: Women At Risk

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in this country. So, first lady Laura Bush is working to educate them about the problem.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Bush, who has been working on this campaign for three years now, joins the president when he signs a proclamation declaring February American Heart Month. She's also part of the awareness campaign called "The Heart Truth."

"A lot of women didn't know that heart disease was the No.1 killer of women," Mrs. Bush, tells The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler. "They thought it was a man's disease."

According to the latest survey by the American Heart Association (AHA), 46 percent of American women know that heart disease is the leading killer of women - 55 percent of white women, 30 percent of African-American women, and 27 percent of Latinas. In 2000, 34 percent knew and, in 1997, 30 percent knew. But despite the increase in awareness, the survey also found that only 13 percent of women believe heart disease is their chief health threat; 35 percent of women put breast cancer as their top concern.

Mrs. Bush notes if women "suffered any symptoms of a heart attack, they were slow going to the hospital and they would rush their husband or boyfriend to the hospital. So that's one of the messages of The Heart Truth campaign is: if you start to suffer any symptoms of a heart attack, go straight to the emergency room."

Many people believe that as much as 50 percent of heart disease occurs in persons who don't have any of the traditional risk factors, such as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, overweight/obesity, physical inactivity, and diabetes. But the new studies explode that myth and help to complete the picture of risk begun a few years ago, when researchers reported that those without risk factors have a low likelihood of developing heart disease as well as stroke and cancer.

According to those findings, persons without risk factors had 72 to 85 percent fewer deaths from heart disease and stroke than persons with risk factors. Those at low risk also lived about 6 to 10 years longer than those with risk factors. Researchers estimate that only about 10 percent of Americans are at low risk for heart disease.

So by changing their lifestyles women can prevent or control the risk factors and lower the chances of developing heart disease. Mrs. Bush says, "We know that women who have healthy eating, who maintain a good weight, and who exercise can prevent heart disease. And because most women still do most of the cooking around American homes; they also can really influence the lives of their children and make sure their children grow up without developing heart disease."

Here is what you can do to lower heart disease risk:

Don't smoke - Smokers had a coronary event at least 10 years sooner than non-smokers, regardless of the presence or absence of other major risk factors. But deaths dropped by 36 percent among those who'd stopped smoking.

Eat for heart health - If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, follow an eating plan low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and limit your intake of salt and other forms of sodium. Those with high cholesterol should increase their intake of soluble fiber and cholesterol-lowering foods; those with high blood pressure who drink alcoholic beverages should do so in moderation.

Be physically active - Regular physical activity helps prevent and control heart disease and its major risk factors. Aim for a healthy weight. If you are overweight, aim to lose no more than 1/2 to 2 pounds per week.

Following the recommendations, Mrs. Bush has now become more physically active. "I've been lifting weights now for about three years," she says. "Three times a week, if I can, and I've always liked to walk. And that's the good news about exercising. It doesn't have to be marathon running, just going for a walk, getting up off the couch and going for a walk every day. And not only is it good for you physically, but I also think it's great mentally to go for a walk and if possible to go walk outdoors to breathe fresh air. It is good for your head, absolutely."

Specifically, AHA recommends the following:

  • All women should receive an evaluation of heart health based on the Framingham Risk Score, which takes into account: age, total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, smoking status and systolic blood pressure.
  • Women with higher risk levels should pursue more aggressive prevention strategies than women with intermediate or low risk levels.
  • High-risk women should receive statins, ACE inhibitors or beta-blockers to lower cholesterol.
  • Women with blood pressure levels of 140/90 or higher should receive drugs to lower that level.
  • High-risk women with low HDL levels should receive niacin-based drugs but not niacin-based supplements.
  • Aspirin use is effective for high-risk women, but the risks of bleeding, stroke or stomach problems outweigh the benefit in lower-risk women.