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NHLBI To Warn Women of Heart Disease Danger

By Ann Taubenheim

On the Front Page...

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recently brought together more than 80 leading experts on women's health and patients to help develop a new national program to educate American women about the dangers of heart disease.


The 2-day workshop "Women's Heart Health: Developing a National Health Education Action Plan" was held in Bethesda and resulted in a host of recommendations that will help shape the program's goals, messages and activities. Among these were recommendations to target communication efforts to young and minority women, promote community involvement, and work with physicians and other health care professionals to improve detection and treatment of heart disease in women.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability in women in the United States. It kills approximately 500,000 American women each year; of those, 250,000 die of heart attacks. Despite these statistics, a recent survey on health concerns of women showed that less than 33 percent identified heart disease as the leading cause of death. Moreover, twice as many women reported being worried about breast cancer as about heart disease. "Our vision is to lead the way to a time when all women live healthier lives, free from the pain, fear and disability caused by heart disease," said NHLBI director Dr. Claude Lenfant in his opening remarks to workshop participants.

The workshop included plenaries, small group sessions and a talk show-like presentation of personal stories from four women battling heart disease. The web broadcast of the workshop can be viewed at

In her opening presentation, workshop chair Dr. Susan K. Bennett, Washington Hospital Center, called participants to action, charging them with developing a science-based blueprint for a comprehensive heart health education action plan for patients, health professionals and the public. She asked participants to think of what their organizations have not been able to do alone and to consider linking strengths with NHLBI and its governmental partners, as well as with the very people sitting next to them.

Dr. Nanette Wenger, professor of medicine, Emory University, then spoke about, "Taking Aim at the Number One Killer of Women." She emphasized that 43 percent of women who die of heart disease have no clinical symptoms. Moreover, women with heart disease do not fare as well as men with heart disease. Studies show that women who have heart attacks die or a have another heart attack more often than men who have heart attacks. Women heart attack patients receive less thrombolytic therapy, aspirin, heparin, or beta-blockers than their male counterparts.

Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, chief of cardiology at Morehouse School of Medicine, spoke to participants on the challenges and opportunities of reducing heart disease in minority women. She said heart disease disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic women, with black women developing the disease at much younger ages than women of other races.

Ofili described the most common risk factors of heart disease in women, which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes and physical inactivity. She added that there has been a dramatic rise in the rates of type 2 diabetes in the U.S., and it is estimated that up to 50 percent of cases have not been diagnosed.

A highlight of the workshop was a "talk show" presentation, "Women and Heart Disease: Personal Perspectives," which featured four women sharing their experiences with heart disease. Brenda Romney spoke about her family history of heart disease and the steps she is taking, as a woman in her 30s, to reduce her risk profile. A 14-year survivor of breast cancer, Marsha Oakley shared her feelings about going through early menopause at age 38 after having had chemotherapy and the resulting consequence of having her risk of heart disease greatly increased. Judy Mingram and Paula Upshaw, both of whom suffered major heart attacks 10 years ago, at ages 40 and 34, respectively, shared their experiences, which taught them that women need to know the facts about heart disease and manage their own health care.

Much of the workshop was devoted to small group work sessions, during which participants developed action plans for the NHLBI program.

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