Pain in other parts of the body such as shoulders, arms and elbows
Rapid or irregular pulse
Shortness of breath after minimal exertion
Swelling in feet, ankles legs or abdomen
A national campaign launched this week by an influential heart health group is pushing for a screening for every American woman. The group is promoting easier access to screenings, as cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death for men and women both.
Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation is launching “Screen Us Where We Are!” with the goal of ensuring every woman gets a screening for heart disease wherever she goes for her primary health care needs.
“We women are getting neglected because we are not getting screened, even though we are going in for check ups,” said Irene Pollin, a psychiatric social worker and philanthropist who started the Maryland-based organization in 1999.
Most women depend on their OB/GYN for primary care and may not be discussing heart disease at their annual visit, Pollin said.
“Screen Us Where We Are!” will work to make heart health screening and counseling accessible to women by bringing screenings to the places women go for basic medical care, including the gynecologist's office and pharmacy-based clinics, according to the Sister to Sister website.
Over the last decade, Sister to Sister has been working diligently to bring women’s attention to their number one cause of death by holding free heart disease screenings cities across the country. To date, Sister to Sister has screened more than 100,000 women from age 20 to 90, Pollin said.
In addition, Sister to Sister will go to Capitol Hill in the coming months to encourage lawmakers to take action on heart disease prevention in women.
Most women fear cancer more than heart disease, according to Dr. Michelle Albert, Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine and Director of Cardiovascular Research at Howard University.
Albert, a member of Sister to Sister’s Medical Advisory Council, wants to get the message out that one in four women dies from heart disease. Awareness among women about the risks of heart disease has risen in the last decade, but not enough, Albert said.
“Women in general are more afraid of cancer than they are of cardiovascular disease, even though they’re more likely to be inflicted with and die from cardiovascular disease than of cancer,” Albert said.
In 2010, 290,305 women died from heart disease, 273,706 died from cancer and 77,109 women died from strokes, the third leading cause of death for women according to statistics from the National Vital Statistics System and the Underlying Cause of Death on the CDC Wonder Online Database.
One contributing factor to women’s concern with cancer may be the high success of the omnipresent breast cancer pink ribbon awareness campaign. The Red Dress campaign, launched by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2002 to raise awareness about heart health among women, may not have been as effective, according to Albert.
“In general, the red dress campaign had targeted higher socioeconomic status women,” Albert said. “It wasn’t really penetrating the average woman.”
In the past year, the American Heart Association has made strides to make changes to reach more women. A new campaign, The Heart Truth, focuses on the stories of real women with heart disease.
“I think there’s some catching up that needs to be done,” Albert said. “That doesn’t happen in one to two years, but I think catching up has begun.”
Women can get screened at their doctor’s office during their annual physical. A basic screening should include a blood pressure check, a blood test to measure blood glucose and cholesterol, and may also include an obesity screen and a family history review. Once screened, ask for test results and an explanation of the numbers. If the numbers show a risk, talk to the doctor about incorporating ways to improve your heart health. Ask when you should be screened again.
Another helpful tool from Sister to Sister is an app called Smart for the Heart, which helps women determine their risk for heart disease and offers advice for heart healthy living.
The recently revamped heart health guidelines say all women should have their blood pressure checked yearly. If elevated over 140/90, it should be rechecked several times within three months while beginning lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity.
The patient should also check with her doctor for potential need for medication, according to Albert. Finally, women should have a lipid profile every three years, maintain a BMI of less than 25, refrain from smoking, increase exercise and reduce stress in order to lower their risk of heart disease, Albert said.