Breast cancer. Cervical cancer. AIDS. Risky pregnancies. Ask people which medical condition kills the most women on an annual basis and these are some of the afflictions you might hear about. The real answer? None of the above.
"Studies have shown that heart disease is the number one killer of women in North Idaho," says Mike J. Regan, spokesman for Kootenai Medical Center. "That's a huge surprise to most people."
Actually, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases claim the lives of more than half a million women nationwide each year -- that's about a death a minute. That's more than the next seven causes of death combined, and nearly twice as many women as those who die from all forms of cancer combined.
This all adds up to women being at a higher risk of dying from hearth disease than men.
To create awareness of heart disease and the huge risks it poses for women, AHA is focusing on women's heart and health issues throughout February.
"We are having the first annual women and heart disease luncheon on Feb. 11 this year, and we are running a big awareness campaign," says Jennifer Daniel, communications manager for the Pacific/Mountain Affiliate of AHA. "We are trying to reach women who are at risk of heart disease, and yes, that would pretty much be most of us. Through the campaign, we're hoping to empower women to talk to their doctors about heart disease, and also to help people realize that some symptoms of heat disease can be different in women when compared to men."
At Kootenai Medical Center, staff will be offering low-cost heart disease screenings throughout February and March.
"The Heart Advantage Program is offering screenings every Tuesday and Friday in February and then on March 5, 12 and 19," says Regan. "We go over family history of heart disease, take your blood pressure and do a cholesterol screening. It's $10 for the initial screening, and we're hoping we can fill up all the slots."
There are no free screenings available.
"I guess if you have a hard time paying, you can call and tell your story and we'll see what we can do," says Regan, "but we don't have any funding set up to cover the tests."
Katrina Walker is one of the organizers of Kootenai Medical Center's Heart Advantage Program, and she says it's all about awareness, prevention and knowing your risk factors.
"Whether women are currently seeing a physician or not, we want to see everyone," she says. "The signs and symptoms of heart trouble in women are different from those you see most often in men. Men say they feel like they have an elephant sitting on their chest when they are having a heart attack. For women, it can be much more subtle -- they can feel nausea, a tingling in the arm or the shoulder blade."
And women may not pay as much attention to the symptoms as they should.
"Women are traditionally caretakers -- they worry about everyone else, picking up the kids and getting dinner ready for the family. We have a tendency to ignore persistent symptoms when we are busy dealing with everyone else," says Walker. "And family history is huge. If your dad has had a heart attack, then, yes, you should worry about what could happen to you."
It makes it extra shocking that so many women die from heart disease when you take into consideration that lives don't have to end that way.
"The other thing it's important to know is that heart disease is preventable, totally preventable, except in rare hereditary cases," says Daniel. "The six highest risk factors are: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, tobacco smoke -- it doesn't matter if it's secondhand or if you smoke it, tobacco smoke is bad -- physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes."
And there is no magic cure, no silver bullet, no pill to take in the morning.
"Prevention starts with the very simple things," says Regan. "Number one is don't smoke. Number two is do some exercise and that has to be a lifelong commitment to 30 minutes a day. But be creative: do some aggressive vacuuming, or some assertive cleaning. Crank up the music and get your pulse going. Anything that gets the heart going counts: take the stairs, park furthest away in the parking lot and walk up to the store. All exercise counts, not just the exercise where your heart rate gets over a certain level."
Lifelong healthy eating habits are important to keeping a healthy heart, too. At the Heart Institute of Spokane, all efforts are focused on promoting a heart-friendly diet for this year's heart month.
"What we've done is focused on Mediterranean food, which is very hot in this area, and we have collected a bunch of recipes in our new food plan," says Jerrie Heyamoto, community education coordinator for the Heart Institute. "And we've gotten together eight local chefs, for this 'Battle of the Chefs' -- everything we are doing for heart month is centered on food."
The Battle of the Chefs is modeled after The Iron Chef TV series and will be held at the Big Easy on Feb. 21, pitting Adam Hegsted of Cedars Floating Restaurant against Dani Briceno of the Davenport Hotel, David Hill from Hill's Someplace Else and five other local top cooks.
"We're really looking forward to that event," says Heyamoto. "I think it'll be fun for people to see the chefs actually go at it, with the clanging of the pans and everything."
Until then, people can practice in their own kitchens making Lima or Fava Bean Plaki or Salata Letchine, following the recipes in the food plan.
"We always try to make the recipes quick to prepare and simple to understand," says Heyamoto. "People don't have to go to specialty stores -- everything can be purchased at Tidyman's, for instance. There is no need to be intimidated."
What it all comes down to is prevention and awareness. And much as breast cancer has the pink ribbon pins, cardiovascular disease in women now has a red dress pin.
"This is part of the Go Red for Women campaign which kicks off with National Wear Red for Women Day on Friday, Feb. 6," says Daniel. "We'd like for everyone to participate in that of course. I mean, the First Lady is doing it, the governor and his wife are getting involved. It's the beginning of a campaign much like the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer, and it's supposed to be a two or three year campaign -- but believe me, we'll continue as long as it takes to get the message out there."
To reserve a time for a heart screening at Kootenai Medical Center, call (208) 666-2083 -- men are welcome at the screenings, too. To receive a Red Dress Pin and information about how to prevent cardiovascular disease in women, call 1-888-MY-HEART or visit www. americanheart.org. To receive a free food plan from The Heart Institute of Spokane, call 625-3000 To reserve $10 tickets for the Battle of the Chefs on Saturday, Feb. 21, from noon-3 pm at the Big Easy, call 625-3000 or visit www.this.org Tickets are also available at area Tidyman's. To reserve $40 tickets for the first annual Women and Heart Disease Luncheon -- featuring Dr. Jacy Ryan, medical director for Sacred Heart Women's Health Center, actress Patty Duke, news anchor Nadine Woodward and a heart disease survivor -- on Wednesday, Feb. 11 from 11 am-1 pm at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park, call 536-1500
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