Women learn about heart risks at Sacramento 'Go Red' event

05/04/2013 12:00 AM

05/05/2013 1:55 PM

What irks Dr. Reetu Sharma, a Sutter Health cardiologist, is the statistic revealing that only 1 in 5 women believe that heart disease poses the No. 1 threat to their health.

Especially considering that 1 in 3 women will die of the disease.

Compare that with the 1 in 30 women who will die of breast cancer. Though less fatal than heart disease, breast cancer commands a far greater degree of awareness among the U.S. female population.

"The '1 in 5' statistic that bothers me," Sharma said to a group of women gathered to hear her speak at the Go Red for Women event Friday, which drew about 450 people to the Red Lion Woodlake Inn on Friday.

"I guess we're not in the news enough. This has long been thought of as a men's disease," Sharma said. "There's a gender disparity here."

Educating women about that disparity and their risks for developing heart disease is the guiding goal behind the Go Red for Women movement, which has been gathering steam for about 10 years.

Sharma and Dr. Diane Sobkowicz, director of the women's heart program at Sutter Heart & Vascular Institute, are spearheading women's heart health research and education initiatives in Sacramento and beyond.

Sharma said that increasingly she's had to do battle with insurance companies to get patients the tests they need. Ten years ago, she said, she never had to advocate for her patients, but in these days of cost-cutting, she finds herself on the phone talking to insurance company doctors at least weekly.

"Insurance companies don't want to pay for tests for prevention," Sharma said.

So it is fortuitous that the American Heart Association launched the Go Red for Women movement to educate women about how to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle and take charge of prevention.

One tip that Sharma shared was about the importance of exercise – at least 30 minutes six days a week, even if it means only walking.

Lest women think they have too little time, Sharma added: "Every hour you walk potentially adds two hours to your life."

Attendees learned that women, not men, are more likely to die of heart disease. But for decades, research on heart attacks focused on men's health.

Unlike the unambiguous "elephant on the chest" sensation that men often feel while having a heart attack, women's symptoms are much more subtle.

They may include profuse sweating, sudden fatigue, pain in the jaw, shoulder or arm and an abnormal sensation in the chest that might even be mistaken for severe heartburn.

Often, a heart attack follows a period of stress during which blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol levels rise.

Dr. Sobkowicz said living a heart-healthy life means women should "know their numbers." That entails memorizing healthy levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, body-mass index, blood sugar and more – and knowing how your vital statistics compare.

Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft.

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