Every year, February has been the month to Go Red for Women, a campaign started by the American Heart Association (AHA) to promote women’s cardiovascular health. According to www.goredforwomen.org, over 627,000 lives have been saved since 2005, meaning 34% fewer women are dying of heart disease. Furthermore, the Go Red movement has helped educate health care providers and researchers in the differences between women and men’s heart health, a life-saving distinction. Racial and ethnic differences have also been identified and heart health screenings are now more widely available to women of all socio-economic backgrounds. These are significant improvements in the level of knowledge and treatment of women’s heart health. Still, five times more women die from heart disease than breast cancer. That means 1 in 6 women will die from cardiovascular disease vs. 1 in 25 who will lose their fight against breast cancer.

Even if you are not at risk for heart disease or a heart attack, once you reach menopause, it’s vitally important that you discuss your heart health with your doctors. While the debate over the risk of HRT on heart disease continues and grows increasingly complex, what is clear is the escalated risk of developing heart disease or dying from a heart attack after menopause. The culprit: lower estrogen levels raise a woman’s overall cholesterol level, a well-known risk factor for heart disease. And, while it’s sometimes overwhelming to manage the other symptoms of menopause, a heart assessment needs to be a critical component in determining how you will make the transition, especially if you are considering HRT.

The American Heart Association and the North American Menopause Society have published guidelines for women’s heart check-ups.
• At age 20, begin regular cardiovascular screenings that check blood pressure, cholesterol, weight/BMI, blood glucose, and waist circumference.
• Have your blood pressure checked every 2 years if it’s below 120/80.
• Between 50-64 years, check cholesterol levels regularly if you are at risk of heart disease; check with your doctor annually at age 65.

The Center for Advanced Heart Care at the University of Kansas Medical Center suggests the following additional tests may be needed for menopausal women:
• Coronary calcium score (CT scan)
• Electrocardiogram (EKG)
• Echocardiogram
• Stress test, and
• Coronary computed tomographic angiography (Coronary CTA)

February is not a long month, but it’s long enough to learn something you can do to either improve or sustain your heart health. To get started, here’s a link to a simple online heart disease risk calculator. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to review your risk profile. This is something I have been putting off. However, after completing the risk calculator and reviewing my latest cholesterol test, I have promised myself to make an appointment with my general practitioner before the end of this month. My father (and his father and grandfather) died of a sudden heart attack at age 54. Until now, I have always assumed that heart disease would be a concern for my brother, not my sister and I. Go Red taught me differently. Don’t put off your heart assessment any longer; take your first step toward improving your heart health and change your life.