The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Screenings for young women can fight the No. 1 killer.

Doctor examins x-rays

There’s an epidemic in our country and it’s taking the lives of American women. It attacks one in two, kills one in three and contributes to more deaths among women each year than all cancers combined.

Heart disease, once viewed as an “old man’s disease,” now takes the life of one woman every 80 seconds. That’s more than 400,000 women each year. My own mother was one of them.

When I was 15, I was home alone with my mom when I witnessed her suffer a stroke. She had a history of headaches and was diagnosed with high blood pressure the week before. After she passed, my dad found an unfilled prescription for blood pressure medication in her purse. I still think about how she might have lived had she realized that high blood pressure put her at risk for a stroke and had that prescription filled.

Sadly, too many women are dying before their time. Consider this:

  • Breast cancer will cause about one in 31 deaths among American women this year. Heart disease will cause roughly 10 times that number, or about one in three.
  • Cardiovascular disease rates and risk factors are rising the fastest among young women, especially African Americans and Hispanics. Of African American women aged 20 and older, nearly half have heart disease. And Hispanic women are likely to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than Caucasian women.
  • Women have more repeat heart attacks and greater risk of stroke after a heart attack than men. One in four women will die within one year of her heart attack, compared with one in five men.
  • More research into heart disease among women is needed. It is the No. 1 killer of women, yet only a small fraction of the National Institutes of Health budget is spent on women’s heart disease research. For the past 50 years, medical research on men has been dictating women’s treatment. Today, only 35 percent of participants in all heart-related studies are women.

To fight this chronic condition, The Ohio State University has teamed with the Women’s Heart Alliance (#getHeartChecked) to provide screenings and education to female students. Our hope is that by educating women earlier in life about the risks and symptoms of heart disease, we can reduce its onset — or prevent it entirely.

We have several campus activities planned for the fall semester to help kick off the partnership. But you can take steps right now to lessen your risk and stay heart healthy.

First, know your risk and get your heart checked. This involves a conversation with and screenings by your health care provider to assess your personal risk of developing heart disease. During your appointment, you’ll cover your lifestyle habits and medical and family histories. It also will entail blood work and a physical exam.

Next, make sure you’re living a heart healthy lifestyle. Studies indicate that engaging in the following four healthy behaviors can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease:

  1. Sit less, stand more. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels. The surgeon general recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days per week.
  2. Eat fruits and veggies. Five servings a day will do the trick.
  3. Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your heart and your health. Talk to your health care provider if you need help quitting.
  4. Limit alcohol consumption. This means no more than one drink a day for women; two a day for men.

We’re taking great strides at Ohio State toward our goal of becoming the healthiest university on the globe, and this partnership to fight women’s heart disease helps ensure we don’t skip a beat. The time to invest in your health is now. Because how we live our lives today will affect how we spend our tomorrows.

This article was updated Aug. 5, 2016, to clarify the proportion of deaths among American women attributed to breast cancer and heart disease.

Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is the university’s chief wellness officer, associate vice president for health promotion and College of Nursing dean.