Go Red: Women and Heart Disease

By: Phaedra McDonough, APRN

Each February, we hear the classic “Go Red” slogan encouraging us to advocate for female heart health.  But what is heart disease? Is it really that common? And, why are we going red?

Heart Disease Basics

Heart disease is the end result of atherosclerosis, a process where plaque builds against the walls of our arteries. It narrows the passageway, making blood flow increasingly difficult.  Over time, a blood clot may form in the narrowed artery.  Eventually the clot will expand and stop blood flow through the artery. And, if the blood supply to the heart is cut off, a stroke or heart attack is not far behind.

While heart disease is the most common cause of death for women, only 20 percent of females believe it is a serious threat.  Heart disease should be taken seriously because it kills 1 in 3 women each year.  Prevention begins with education and self-care. So let’s review some common risk factors for women:


Are you a couch potato? Not exercising as much as you’d like? If so, you need to know that studies have linked a lack of exercise to high blood pressure, increased blood clots, and a higher risk for strokes.  Just 30 minutes of walking a day can help lower your cholesterol and improve your body’s use of insulin.  In fact, for every hour of exercise you get, you gain almost two additional hours of life.  Talk about motivation!


Are you a smoker?  The evidence is clear that smoking increases the risk for a heart attack by 2 to 4 times.  And smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer. The nicotine in cigarettes causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase rapidly. In addition, it permanently damages your blood vessels, leaving the passageways more susceptible to blood clots. Overall, smoking drains your body’s tolerance for physical activity and significantly lowers your HDL levels (good cholesterol).


Are you suffering from depression or facing significant stress?  Research shows that women living with depression struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle and disregard recommended treatment plans.  Adhering to medication plans and maintaining a nutritious diet are simple deterrents of heart disease.  Moreover, self-confidence and personal motivation are often determining factors in a person’s overall heart health.


Are you planning a family or currently expecting?  Unfortunately, the onset of gestational diabetes and high blood pressure could considerably raise your risk for both short and long-term heart trouble.  While heart disease complicates less than 4 percent of pregnancies, the various risk factors associated with the disease are becoming more common.  If you’re currently overweight, have diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol, and become pregnant, your child will also have an increased risk for heart health issues.


As women enter menopause, their bodies experience a natural decline in estrogen.  This hormone has been thought to be supportive of the inner layer of artery walls, allowing the vessels to remain flexible.  However, research has found that after menopause women tend to see a rise in their cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides (types of fat found in blood).


Are you overweight or obese? Discussing weight has nothing to do with wanting to fit into your old skinny jeans.  If you carry excess weight, your heart is being strained, raising your blood pressure and cholesterol – and your chances for diabetes and heart disease.  In fact, almost 60 percent of diabetes diagnoses involve obese patients.

While prevention often begins with education, it continues through action and conscious lifestyle changes.  So, why do we go red?  In 2002, the American Heart Association first observed National Wear Red for Women Day, in an effort to spotlight women’s heart health.  In fact, GO RED spells out an acronym of action plans for women:

G: Get Your Own Numbers

Ask your primary care provider to measure your blood pressure and cholesterol.  It’s important to monitor these numbers because they’re the first indicators of heart health issues.

O: Own Your Lifestyle

Resolve to improve your overall health.  If you smoke, quit. Obese, lose the weight. Junk food craver, opt for healthier snacks. You are the sole determinant in making (and keeping) these positive lifestyle changes.

R:  Realize Your Risk

The fact is, facts don’t lie. One in three women die of heart disease. We often think, “this won’t happen to me,” however, statistics prove otherwise.

E: Educate Your Family

Involve your family! Educate your children on the importance of physical activity and a balanced diet. In fact, making lifestyle changes as a family holds everyone accountable to each other and ensures that you all stay on track.

D: Don’t Be Silent

Talk with your friends – share your knowledge and have a frank discussion.  Start walking together at lunch.  Be her encouragement to quit smoking.  Share recipes for healthy meal alternatives.  Creating a network of heart-health-minded friends will increase your ability to maintain your new and healthy lifestyle.

Phaedra McDonough, NP is a certified nurse practitioner with The Center for Cardiovascular Health at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. The Center provides a single point of service for patients in need of care during early or advanced stages of heart and vascular disease.  Ms. McDonough can be reached at 802-275-3699.