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By Brad Marshland
After Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on live television in 2000, colonoscopy rates jumped by 20%. Research published in JAMA called it “The Katie Couric Effect.” Now, as part of American Heart Month, Yahoo News Global Anchor Couric is hoping to boost public awareness of heart disease in women by having her heart checked at the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
Heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined, yet there is a significant lack of awareness and discussion about heart disease among women. According to the Women’s Heart Alliance, “Despite the fact that heart disease is women’s number one killer, an online survey of 1,011 women 25-60 years of age found that few respondents (27%) could name a woman in their lives with heart disease. Even fewer (11%) could name a woman who has died from it, and 76% said that they rarely talk about heart disease among family and friends.”
Still, women are dying – nearly 400,000 per year, or about one woman every 90 seconds (Women’s Heart Alliance). And they die of heart disease at a greater rate than men – often because they don’t even know they have it. In fact, according to an article in Clinical Cardiology, 64% of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease show no prior symptoms.
One problem, says Couric, is that “we all know we should get mammograms or do breast self-exams and talk to our gynecologists about our breast health. But people aren’t really sure what they should be doing when it comes to monitoring our heart health.”
The answer is pretty straightforward: It starts with getting your heart checked annually, beginning in your 20s. Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, says “There are young people walking around with very high cholesterol levels, and they’re gonna have a heart attack when they’re 45, and we could’ve prevented it.”
A heart check typically includes both a blood pressure and a cholesterol check. Both of these tests can be done as part of a regular office visit and are covered by the Affordable Care Act. As Dr. Bairey Merz points out, “Prevention is now paid for.”
If you like a more “do-it-yourself” approach, blood pressure and cholesterol checks are also now available at many national pharmacy chains. You can then enter your own data into a free, online tool, called the “Pooled Cohort Risk Assessment”. This is the same tool many doctors and nurses use in their offices. Once you enter your stats, the program will tell you both your 10-year risk and your lifetime risk of getting atheroschlerotic cardiovascular disease. Knowing your own risk can be a valuable tool in conversation with your doctor about how to reduce your chances of getting heart disease.
While you can’t change your family history, there’s still a lot you can do to reduce your risk. The American Heart Association recommends:
• If you smoke, quit!
• Exercise – according to Dr. Bairey Merz, even just walking more can help prevent cardiovascular disease.
• Follow a heart-healthy diet - low in cholesterol, saturated fat, and refined sugars.
• Maintain a healthy weight.
• Reduce stress - even simple activities like getting together with friends for a laugh can go a long way.
• Control high blood pressure and diabetes.
• Limit alcohol consumption.
And finally, make sure to get your heart checked every year.