The future remains uncertain for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which opened the door for a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system with President Barack Obama’s signature in 2010 and which continues to be attacked and subjected to legislative revisions initiated by the current president, Donald J. Trump, and his Republican colleagues.
But women, who tend to serve as the primary caregivers for their families while often ignoring their own health, can ill afford to wait until the dust finally clears, particularly when it comes to their hearts.
Often thought of as a “man’s disease,” heart disease stands as the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. with Black and Hispanic women facing higher risks than whites while also significantly less aware of their cardiovascular risks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control attributes the disparities, which disproportionately impact women of color, to language and cultural barriers, lack of access to prevention care and lack of insurance.
Earlier this year, leading medical experts from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) invited members of the Black and Hispanic press from across the U.S. to join them at the Harvard Club in New York City for an afternoon that featured a panel discussion, a question-and-answer session and a sharing of resources for covering heart disease titled “Healthy Hearts in Every Community: Partnering with Media to Advance Prevention, Treatment and Research.”
During the informative event, one heart disease survivor shared her story — a wife and mother who says if she had not been involved in a serious car accident that required rehabilitation — she may well have been among the nearly two-thirds of American women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease without having experienced any previous symptoms.
“My family has a history of cardiovascular disease and hypertension that contributed to the deaths of my mother, father and paternal grandfather but I never had high blood pressure or other worrying signs,” said Natalia Rogers, a woman with Latin American roots. “But near the end of my physical therapy, I noticed a ‘plucking’ in my heart and my primary care doctor detected an increase in my blood pressure. So, I saw a cardiologist and was shocked to learn that I had congestive heart failure and non-ischemic cardiomyopathy.”
Rogers, 57, says she made immediate and drastic lifestyle changes: attending cardia rehab, adopting healthier eating habits and making physical activity part of her daily routine.
“I got a second chance at life,” she said.
Another speaker, a wife and mother of three children, said she never considered heart disease a medical condition with which she should be concerned – until the day when pain shot down her lower back, legs and shoulders with such force that she fell to the ground.
“I thought I was having back spasms,” Sharon Bond, 47, said. “I was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy where the heart muscle grows very thick. It’s something I’d been born with and it went undetected for my entire life.”
Bond, who required open heart surgery, has
made a complete recovery and now shares her story as often possible, hoping that “it will lead to other detections of heart disease.”
One panelist, Dr. George Mensah, director of the Center for Translation Research and Implementation Science, NHLBI, has been on the frontline for more than 20 years conducting research which addresses gaps in prevention, treatment and control of heart disease. During his comments, he said, “Disparities remain pervasive in the U.S.”
“Unequal disease burden is evident among population groups based on sex, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, educational attainment, nativity or geography,” he said. “While we’ve seen significant declines in cardiovascular disease mortality rates in all groups, we need more large-scale intervention studies in places like the southeastern U.S. and Appalachia whose populations continue to demonstrate an especially high disease burden.”
Further, Dr. Mensah said African-American women, because their percentage far outweighs those represented by white, Hispanic, Native American or Asian or Pacific Islander women, must become better informed about heart disease, particularly preventive measures they can take.
Dr. Lenora Johnson, who heads the Office of Science Policy, Engagement, Education and Communications, NHLBI, answered questions about symptoms that may suggest the possibility of heart disease. However, she emphasized that heart disease may be “silent,” only diagnosed when one actually experiences a heart attack, heart failure, an arrhythmia or a stroke.
“There are several key risk factors for heart disease, all of which are preventable: high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and smoking – half of Americans (49 percent) have at least one of these three risk factors. But there are other medical conditions and lifestyle choices that can also put one at much greater risk for heart disease: diabetes, overweight and obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use,” she said.
Other panelists/speakers included: Doctors Bola Sogade and Michelle N. Johnson, co-chairs, Cardiovascular Disease in Women Committee, ABC; Dr. Nakela Cook, chief of staff, NHLBI; and Dr. Ileana L. Piña, professor of medicine and of epidemiology and population health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and associate chief for academic affairs, Montefiore Medical Center.
Meanwhile, Christine Jellis, a cardiologist with Cleveland Clinic, directs women to be intentional about taking the proper steps to combat and alleviate stress.
“Many women are working full-time, might have young children, might be caring for older relatives,” she said. “People dealing with high levels of stress often don’t have time for adequate sleep, relaxation, exercise or healthy eating – all of which are important for keeping the heart healthy. It’s easy [for women] to forget about our own health.”
This article was written as part of the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America, New America Media and AARP. The journalist was also supported by the National Institutes of Health National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.