An American Heart Association study released last month found that only half of American women would call 9-1-1 if they were having symptoms of a heart attack. One has to wonder if this alarming statistic is related to the fact that so many women don’t know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women—more than all forms of cancer, including breast cancer—and the fact that so few people realize that half of all heart attacks occur in people with normal levels of cholesterol. For whatever reason, we have what could easily be called a heart-health awareness crisis among women.
While awareness about heart disease has increased among women in recent years, there is an alarming racial/ethnic disparity within that increase. The AHA study found that 60 percent of white women are aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death, but only 43 percent of African American women, 44 percent of Hispanic women and 34 percent of Asian women have the same awareness.
Raising awareness among women—especially minority women—about the deadly nature of heart disease and what can be done to combat it would fit beautifully into Michelle Obama’s basket of issues that she has already taken on as first lady. Healthy eating habits and childhood obesity are important issues; she should add the health of America’s children’s mothers to the mix.
As luck would have it, there is someone Mrs. Obama could go to for partnership and advice if she chooses to pick up this mantle: her predecessor, Laura Bush. Mrs. Bush’s work to bring attention to heart disease and women likely influenced the increase in awareness percentages that the American Heart Association found in their survey. But her work had really only just begun, and it is certainly worthy of surviving this and future transitions in the East Wing.
The moment is right for bipartisan alliances for the greater good. Presidents Clinton and Bush, after all, recently joined forces to help the people of Haiti. And when they did (thanks to President Obama’s request), the nation collectively nodded and thought, yes, that is right and good. The donations flowed in, red and blue.
We are also in a moment of awareness and discovery that needs to be shared. Leaders and health professionals need to look at the results of the American Heart Association’s study and act accordingly. They also need to look at the research that is being done on statins—the drugs that reduce cholesterol. Women have been an understudied population in statin outcomes trials until recently. For example: Thanks to a new study of the statin drug Crestor that included a focus on women, the FDA approved the use of Crestor for patients who have normal cholesterol but other, lesser-known risk factors including an elevated level of a type of protein that has been linked to strokes and heart attacks. In the trial, occurrence of a cardiovascular event in women without coronary heart disease was reduced by 46 percent.
There is, clearly, much to be taught beyond “eat better and exercise”—something Americans are hearing enough of already. Two well-liked First Ladies could add: “Women need to ask for help. Ask your doctor about your cholesterol level, other risk factors and life-saving medications—they aren’t just for men!”
When it comes to awareness, Michelle and Laura could make heart disease the new breast cancer. And, as a result, save even more lives than the pink ribbons have so far.
Imagine the moment: Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush appearing at a podium together, perhaps in the White House vegetable garden, dedicated to joining forces to save women’s lives. The grace of such a moment might even make the boys and girls on Capitol Hill who are thumbing their noses at each other feel a little silly for being such partisan…haters. For a split-second, anyway.
Jean Card is a writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a former cabinet-level speechwriter and takes statin drugs to reduce her genetically-driven high cholesterol.