Women, Protect Your Hearts: NewPublicHealth Q&A With Nakela Cook

Feb 1, 2013, 12:35 PM


During American Heart Month in February 2013, the Heart Truth campaign of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) will share stories of women taking action to protect their heart.

Today is National Wear Red Day, an observance established in 2003 by the American Heart Association (AHA) and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute [of the National Institutes of Health], to encourage women to take preventive actions against heart disease, the number one killer of women in the U.S. Why the focus on women? Until then, and still today, the myth persists than heart disease is a problem strictly for older men.

Successes since the first National Wear Red Day include:

  • 21% fewer women dying from heart disease
  • 23% more women aware that it's their No. 1 health threat
  • Education on gender-specific differences in symptoms and responses to medications and guidelines for prevention and treatment
  • Legislation to help end gender disparities

“Over the past 11 years, [we have] raised awareness that heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States. Closing the gap between awareness and prevention of heart disease remains a critical public health imperative,” says NHLBI director Gary H. Gibbons, MD.

The campaign merits a tip of the… red hat. More women are finding out their personal risk for developing heart disease. In a 2009 American Heart Association survey, 48 percent reported discussing heart disease with their doctor, up from 30 percent in 1997. This year, the campaign is focused on the importance of women talking with each other and sharing their stories in the fight against heart disease.

"Every woman has a role to play and a story to share. Informed women who have recognized the benefits of positive changes in their lives have the power to inspire, encourage, and motivate others to make healthy changes," said Nakela Cook, M.D., medical officer at the NHLBI.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Cook about National Wear Red Day and its year-long prevention message.

NewPublicHealth: How is National Wear Red Day key to creating awareness about the importance of women taking heart disease prevention serious?

Dr. Cook: The red dress symbol has really become a symbol of awareness for women around heart disease being the number one killer among women. We know the statistics show that almost 60 percent of adult women recognize that symbol now. The Wear Red Day is so important because number one: it reminds people about the issues among heart disease in women. Number two: we know that when awareness is raised it leads to action. We are seeing women do something after they learn that heart disease is the number one killer of women. For example, 35 percent of women who are aware are more likely to be physically active than those who are unaware; 47 percent are more likely to report weight loss than those who are unaware. That is really the key with the red dress: let’s raise awareness but then let’s move that awareness into reducing your risk for heart disease.

NPH: How does the campaign aim to reduce disparities?

Dr. Cook: As part of the Heart Truth Campaign, we focus on addressing disparities through multicultural education resources and community-based health interventions for ethnically diverse groups. So we have opportunities that are specific for African American women and Latino women, and we recognize the need to continue to work in the arena of addressing health disparities. This is an important point that we are taking steps to address.

NPH: How has the project changed over the years?

Dr. Cook: Early on in the campaign there was a real need to let people know that this is the leading cause for death in women. Heart disease was considered more of a man’s disease and there was less awareness among women that they were at risk. As we started to work further with women we recognized the importance of not just acknowledging that, but then what do you do once you understand that? How do you analyze your own personal risks? What steps can you take? How can you help bring your community alongside you to increase awareness? So the efforts have moved in that way and reaching out to younger women as well to let them understand that heart disease risk can begin early in life. Although heart disease awareness has doubled in the last ten years or so. There is still a lot of room to go, so awareness is still on the agenda.

 >>Bonus Link: Find resources here to help women determine, and reduce, their heart disease risk.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.