| February 20, 2019

Cardiovascular disease strikes young and healthy women. The American Heart Association is fighting back

Andreea Ciulac

Andreea Ciulac is former Chicago Tribune writer with almost a decade of reporting experience. She has a knack for deciphering... Andreea Ciulac is former Chicago Tribune writer with almost a decade of reporting experience. She has a knack for deciphering complex medical reports and statistics and conveying them into engaging stories that will help executives in healthcare keep up with the digital transformations in their industry. She covers an array of topics from pharma to startups and the Illinois healthcare system.

What are the chances a 28-year old woman in seemingly perfect health finds herself face-to-face with sudden cardiac death (SCA)? Much higher than most people would think, as Heather Baker found out one morning last February, when she collapsed during a meeting at the Illinois school where she was an administrator. Luckily, her coworkers knew exactly what to do.

They tilted her head back and immediately started performing hands-only CPR, before administering three shocks to her heart using the school’s automated external defibrillator (AED).

Baker was transferred to a hospital, where doctors told her family she might not be able to walk or talk again on her own. Turns out, Baker had something called Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder which causes irregular heartbeats.

Only 1% of SCA survivors get away with zero brain damage.

Baker was fortunate enough to be among that 1% and, a year later, she stepped onto the stage of the 2019 American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Luncheon. Looking the picture of health, decked out in a bright red jumpsuit, Baker was there to send a signal to all women: heart disease can strike the young and healthy.

“To be 28 and find out you went into cardiac arrest is surreal,” Baker said. “I was exercising, I was going to the doctor regularly, I was eating healthy.”

More women are taking better care of themselves. They get their breast and reproductive organs regularly checked, yet little attention is given to heart health.

This annual luncheon aims to change that and raise awareness around cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in women. Emceed by Judy Hsu and Rob Elgas of ABC 7 Chicago, the event was held at the Marriott Marquis Chicago on Friday, February 15, 2019.

“80 percent of cardiac events may be prevented”

“This is not just any old luncheon. This is the largest we had in Chicago to date,” said Liz Smith, President of Assurance and Go Red for Women Chairwoman. “I am here to tell you that heart disease has waged a war on women. It is time to turn the tides and save the lives of those we love.”

The luncheon featured keynote speakers, inspiring survivor stories, and even a live auction. In its 15 years of existence, AHA’s Go Red for Women movement managed to increase awareness about the risk of heart disease in women by 90 percent. They also saved over 670,000 lives.

One in three women is living with some form of cardiovascular disease and its estimated that one woman dies from cardiovascular disease about every 80 seconds, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

The good news? Nearly 80 percent of cardiac events could be prevented.

So, how exactly can women reduce their risk for heart disease and stroke? Physical activity can make the difference between life and death. In the U.S., only one in five women are getting the recommended amount of exercise, most likely because they don’t focus on both aerobic and strength training.

Healthy eating is also key in preventing cardiovascular disease in women, more than 66 percent of women are overweight or obese because their high consumption of sugary drinks. Sodium is a silent killer responsible for hypertension, the second leading cause of preventable heart disease. Another risk factor that is within our control? smoking.

AHA’s “Life’s Simple 7” represents seven key health factors and behaviors that increase a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke: not-smoking, physical activity, healthy diet, body weight, and control of cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

In addition, AHA has put together a handy list of ideal numbers that women can use to calculate their risk including blood pressure (120 / 80 mm Hg), blood sugar (100 mg / dL) and body mass index (25 kg / m2).

What’s next? More women in the STEM field

Baker is now part of AHA’s newest initiative, Go Red goes STEM, designed to empower young women to consider a STEM career and the opportunities to make life-saving breakthroughs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The subcutaneous defibrillator that Baker will have to wear for the rest of her life has become the center of her mission:“I get to speak to female highschool students about my story. I pass around a device that’s similar to mine and challenge them and say ‘You become the engineers that make smaller, lighter devices.’”

Women are grossly underrepresented in research and STEM fields; they hold less than 25 percent of jobs in those industries. This is as detrimental to women as it is to the healthcare industry: female heart attack patients have better chances when treated by female physicians.

Other AHA’s efforts are focused on raising Hands-Only CPR awareness.

Women are less likely to receive Hands-Only CPR (without mouth-to-mouth breaths) from a bystander than men, according to AHA. This basic medical procedure is just as effective in the first few minutes of sudden cardiac arrest as in an out-of-hospital setting. Learn how to perform CPR in 60-seconds by watching this video.

AHA has placed 30 Hands-Only CPR training kiosks in cities across the country. There are two in Chicago: one at the McCormick Place Convention Center and the other at O’Hare International Airport.

Learn more about Go Red for Women and the American Heart Association by visiting their website.


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