If they can’t get you on health, the folks at the AdDRESS Your Heart Campaign intend to get you on vanity.
Over the years, everyone from former First Lady Laura Bush to actress Jane Krakowski have twirled in red frocks as a part of the American Heart Association’s efforts to bring attention to the prevalence of heart disease in women.
The slinky dresses are gorgeous, but the statistics are not: One in three women have heart disease. About 43 percent will die from it, and 63 percent of those who die suddenly from the condition had no previous symptoms, says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietician with a master’s degree in community health.
“I love talking about heart disease,” says Somer, “because it is entirely within your control. There is an outrageously high risk, but the vast majority of people can get it under control, if not avoid it altogether.”
While it’s a worthy goal, too many women are dying now. The sobering statistics provoked Krakowski, who plays Jenna Maroney on the Emmy-winning sitcom, 30 Rock, to take an active role in promoting prevention.
“I’ve been an advocate for women’s heart health since I learned that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women,” she says.
Onboard with the AdDRESS Your Heart campaign since 2007, she stepped out again recently to strut the catwalk in three dresses fashion designer Nicole Miller created for the cause. Supporters went to a website and voted for their favorite style; for each vote Campbell’s Soup gave $1 to the American Hearth Association’s Go Red movement. A dress called ‘Red, White and Seamed’ won, and at the recent Women’s Day Red Dress Awards, Krakowski stepped out in it.
“All three dresses that Nicole designed are amazing, but she and I both liked the [runner up] ‘Stars, Stripes and Soup’ dress the best because its Campbell pop-art images are so fun.”
The Heart Truth campaign, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, introduced the Red Dress as the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness in 2002. The Go Red campaign followed in an effort to continue to raise people’s consciousness around heart health, as well as to nudge women to make lifestyle changes.
“I hope I can help educate women of all ages about the importance of knowing their risk factors and living a healthful lifestyle,” Krakowski says.
Pretty dresses, okay. But Campbell’s soup?
“Eating soup once a day, especially broth based soups, fills a person up,” say Somer. “And they’re less likely to overeat.” Even with a big bowl of the hot stuff, you can consume 150 fewer calories a day, she adds, which could lead to a pound of weight loss per month. The nutritionalists recommends adding extra veggies to the pot as their water, fiber and protein content help to fill you up. “It’s a perfect mix for weight loss,” she adds.
If you’re eating soup from a can, check for the American Heart Association’s seal of approval, also go for the low saturated fat and reduced sodium varieties.
As you may have guessed, soup is only a part of the answer. Somer, who is the author of nine books including, The 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman’s Diet and Age-Proof Your Body, says that we need to eat more than the five servings of fruit and veggies currently recommended. She’s talking eight a day:
“Americans are having a heck of time getting enough fruit and veggies,” she says. “They’re getting about four, but they need to double that. And [nutritional lightweights] potatoes and iceberg lettuce are their No. 1 and No. 2 favorites.”
Fruits and veggies are not only loaded with antioxidants, but also feature that dynamic duo: fiber and water. It’s impossible to be overweight if one is mostly eating fruits and veggies, Somer asserts. This kind of diet can help keep weight gain, high blood pressure, dementia and aging in check.
Yet, even eating soup, fruit and veggies is not the Holy Grail, especially if you follow that with vegging out on the couch and cuddling up to the remote. Exercise six days a week is recommended, says Somer, but she suggests that
newcomers can begin exercising 10 to 15 minutes a day, and work their way up to an hour.
Already skinny? You’re not off the hook, either: The lean set is also at risk for heart disease if they have a high percentage of body fat.
Fat or skinny is less of an issue than the fact that people still tend to think of heart disease as the bastion of men, “Women really need to learn about their risk factors,” says Krakowski. “Using fashion (helps) women take notice.”
This is critical because so much research on heart disease has been done only on men, says Somer, and it’s a misconception that anything found to be true about men is also true for women, as if women are just smaller versions of men.
“Those assumptions are quite false,” the health advocate warns. “Our symptoms are different, our risk factors are different. Women are not at all like little men, and the medical profession downplays the risks for women.”
Take symptoms for example, while men may get a sharp pain in the chest, or pain radiating up and down one arm, women’s heart disease symptoms include indigestion, abdominal discomfort, and a general feeling that something is not quite right. But because these symptoms could be associated with other conditions, a woman may delay seeking treatment and die.
“We’re so scared about breast cancer statistics, but heart disease is over the top,” Somer says. “So many women may be affected by heart disease and die before they ever get cancer.”
Many of the lifestyle choices that lead to heart disease begin in childhood. Eating a high fat diet and/or living a sedentary lifestyle as a youth can set one on a collision course:
“We’re now seeing risk factors for heart disease in children nine years old; they look okay on the outside, but they’ve begun to have clogged arteries, elevated blood sugar levels. They’re setting up a style of eating that’s going to be hard to break.”
Diseases that we’re dealing with now were almost unheard of back during the hunter-gatherer phase of our evolution. If we go back to a diet closer to the one we had when human species evolved: extra lean meat, nut, seeds—you can almost eliminate the risk for heart disease, Somer advises.
“In three or four generations, people have gone from vigorous active lifestyles as farmers and laborers. They didn’t sit at a desk all day long, they were up at the crack of dawn, making their own biscuits, gathering their own eggs. They ate very little processed food because they grew the food themselves. They had lower life expectancies, but they were dying of influenza, infection and tuberculosis—things that we easily can avoid these days.”
For the current generation, stress factors heavily into the equation. We’re under enormous amounts of pressure, which also can lead to heart problems. As an antidote, Somer suggests meditation and, well, more exercise.
“No one seems to be able to live beyond 120, but I think that we can all push our life expectancy closer to that. People don’t fear dying as much as they fear losing their independence,” she says. “Who wants to live to 120 in a coma or incapacitated? You want to stretch those middle years and be vibrant and passionately actively involved with life at 85. If you do more to protect yourself, the more likely you are to get there.”
by Pamela K. Johnson
RISK FACTORS for HEART DISEASE
High blood pressure?This increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Smoking?It increases your risk of developing coronary heart disease to two to four times that of nonsmokers. Smoking is considered to be a major preventable cause of stroke.
High cholesterol?The higher your total blood cholesterol, the greater your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
Physical inactivity?Lack of exercise increases your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
Obesity or excess weight?Excessive body fat, especially around the waist, makes you more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke.
Diabetes?This increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, especially if your blood sugar is not controlled.
There are other risk factors as well. Talk to your doctor about how age, race and heredity may affect your risk for heart disease.