As a cardiologist, I always look forward to World Heart Day which occurs every September 29th. This day provides me with a broader platform to broadcast my message that we must all take care of our hearts and make heart health a priority. But this year, the message is even more critical than usual. Despite all our medical advancements and increased knowledge,
heart disease remains the number one cause of death across the world, killing 17.5 million people a year,
This accounts for a third of all deaths on the planet. Low and middle-income countries (and people) are at the greatest risk.
The purpose of World Heart Day
The purpose of World Heart Day is to raise awareness, but it is also a request for a promise:
It asks that people around the world unite to live “for my heart, for your heart, for all our hearts.”
Part of this is for each one of us to commit to do the following:
- Eat heart-healthier food,
- Exercise more, and
- Stop smoking.
Part of this is for doctors to take more extensive measures to save more lives. It is a clarion call for a collective commitment to better health and it is an inspiring notion. Just thinking about it warms my heart.
World Heart Day and Women
But today, in 2018, we have a bigger problem than the need for better self-care. We can’t tell the story of World Heart Day without telling the story of women, and the institutionalized disregard for the self-care efforts of women that has finally been coming into the public consciousness.
But I’m not talking about a doctor telling a woman to “just lose weight and exercise more.” We all know that part and many struggle to do it. But what is a woman to do when she tries to take care of her heart, expresses her concerns about her heart, or even goes into the hospital fearing she is having a heart attack, and is ignored, dismissed, misdiagnosed, or has her concerns in any way belittled?
This happens every day, in every state, and around the world. Despite everything we now know, women’s heart concerns continue to be routinely ignored and if we do not bring this fully out of the shadows and into the light of day, women will continue to die or become disabled needlessly, due to heart disease.
Medical attention is not happening the way it should
We know that heart disease is one of the chronic diseases of our modern world that is most easily resolved through lifestyle changes and prompt thorough medical attention, but the reality is that while women are largely striving to accomplish those lifestyle changes, the medical attention is not happening the way it should. This is the reality, and World Heart Day is the day to say it loudly and clearly.
Women, this is for you.
The simple fact is that doctors need to do more than continue to encourage women to take care of themselves and their hearts. We need to address the gender bias that has persisted in the medical profession.
We have all seen disparities in care, from access to diagnosis to adequate treatment. Throughout the past couple of months, multiple research studies have illuminated these issues. Two that come to mind have demonstrated that,
- Women are more often delayed life-saving treatment when they enter the hospital
- Women have worse outcomes if treated by a male doctor as opposed to a female doctor.
We should be infuriated
More women are dying of heart disease more than all cancers combined, and I believe this should infuriate us all! No one can change the scenario alone, but when women come together for a cause, they have tremendous power.
Right now only 17% of women consider heart disease or stroke to be the greatest health threat in Americans. We have work to do across the world to educate, empower, and activate women to not only know their health risks but to do something about them.
Eighty percent of the time, heart disease is preventable with active lifestyle changes.
A call to action
Here are some ways that you can help yourself and then help others:
- What you eat is critical. Across the world, the issue is not only about which foods to eat but access to healthy foods. If you have enough access, can you help those who don’t?
- Our world has become increasingly sedentary with more people sliding into overweight and obesity. We all need to commit to exercise and moving as a daily part of our lives. If you already do this, can you help others get active?
- With better diets and more movement, many risk factors for heart disease are likely to be drastically reduced, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Can you let others know?
We can make changes in these dire statistics, and the best option is to make those changes before getting sick. This is particularly important because care for women is often substandard.
My message to doctors
After that, it’s up to us doctors to take the torch. Doctors, that means you! My overriding message here is to be loud, be vocal, and be an advocate for yourself and for all the women of the world.
Right now, equanimity is lacking in what I consider to be the sacred realm of healthcare. So, on this World Heart Day (and on every other day), I hope you will think about how you can do your part to help women understand their number one health threat and recognize that without her involvement and proactive engagement, that may remain the story.
Do it for yourself, your mother, your sisters, aunts, cousins, nieces, friends, and loved ones, as well as for your daughter and all the other young girls who really could grow up in a world without heart disease. We are in this together ladies. Let’s make a change together!
Suzanne Steinbaum, MD
Suzanne Steinbaum MD, Director, Women’s Cardiovascular Prevention, Health and Wellness, Mt. Sinai Hospital; New York, NY, USA
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum has devoted her career to the treatment of heart disease through early detection, education, and prevention. She is an attending cardiologist and the Director of Women’s Heart Health of Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and has been awarded a New York Times Super Doctor, a Castle and Connolly Top Doctor for Cardiovascular Disease and New York Magazine’s prestigious Best Doctors in the New York edition. A Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, she also serves as a national spokesperson for the Go Red for Women campaign and is on the New York City Board of the American Heart Association.