American Heart Month: Protecting Women’s Hearts Beyond Valentine’s Day

February is American Heart Month. Many divisions of HHS, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), CMS, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  are encouraging all Americans—especially women—to educate themselves about their heart health. The agencies are participating in various ongoing campaigns to raise awareness of the risk of heart attacks and treatment, including the Heart Truth campaign and the Million Hearts initiative.

The Heart Truth

The NHLBI launched The Heart Truth campaign to educate women about their risk of heart disease in response to recommendations from 70 women’s health experts who met in 2001 to develop efforts to reduce heart disease in women.  Heart disease remains the number one killer of women in the United States, responsible for 24% of American women’s deaths in 2009.  All forms of cancer combined accounted for 22.2 percent of women’s deaths.  Although The Heart Truth has done much to educate women that they are more likely than men to die of heart disease, many women still do not appreciate the risk.  In a survey of 1,000 American women, only 9.7 percent of participants listed heart disease as the disease they fear the most, only slightly more than the 9.3 percent who feared HIV and AIDS, and significantly less than the 22.1 percent who feared breast cancer.

Heart Attack Symptoms

The most common signs of heart attacks in both women and men are unusually heavy chest pressure, severe shortness of breath, cold sweats, fatigue, dizziness or light-headedness, sharp upper body pain, and nausea or vomiting.  Women are twice as likely as men to experience nausea or vomiting.  They are also more likely than men to experience pain in the back, neck, or jaw.  The agencies and campaigns encourage women to recognize the signs of a heart attack and to call 9-1-1 when they recognize those signs.  Treatment started within one hour of the onset of symptoms reduces the risk of death from a heart attack by 50 percent.  Waiting even 30 minutes to call for help could reduce a woman’s life by one year.  Experts also emphasize that symptoms vary from heart attack to heart attack, so that a new heart attack may not manifest itself in the same way as a prior heart attack.

Risk Factors

Like men, women who suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity are at an increased risk for heart disease.  However, certain additional risk factors affect women more than men.  According to the Mayo Clinic, smoking, mental stress, and depression are more likely to put women at risk for heart disease than men.  Post-menopausal women with low levels of estrogen in their blood are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease in the small blood vessels surrounding the heart.  Finally, women with metabolic syndrome, a combination of abdominal fat and high blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides, are impacted more significantly than men.


Women and men are encouraged to take steps to prevent heart disease and heart attacks.  HHS, and specifically, the CDC and CMS, launched the Million Hearts initiative in 2011, aiming to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. by 2017.  The initiative educates the public and health care professionals about cardiovascular health and reminds everyone to follow the ABCS of treatment:  appropriate Aspirin therapy; Blood pressure control; Cholesterol management; and Smoking cessation.  The initiative encourages exercise and healthy diets, as well.

Although there is no miracle cure for heart disease, the LA Times and other news sources reported on a study published earlier this year in Circulation:  The Journal of the American Heart Association that found an association between a reduced risk for heart attacks in young and middle-aged women and the consumption of blueberries and strawberries.  Researchers followed a group of 96,300 women aged 25 to 42 years old over an 18 year period.  Women in the admittedly low-risk sample who ate three or more servings of strawberries and blueberries weekly were 32% less likely to experience an early heart attack than those who did not–even those who ate other fruits and vegetables.  Researchers hypothesize that the anthocyanins contained in the berries, which give them their bright colors, could reduce the risk of heart attack in that population.  The study focused on strawberries and blueberries only because they are the most widely consumed berries in the country.

So in this month of awareness, be cognizant of your risk factors, recognize your symptoms, maintain a healthy lifestyle—and maybe stock up on some berries.  It couldn’t hurt.