Two days after V-day, on February 16, 2012, I was fortunate to attend a chocolate and wine event sponsored by a Raleigh-based group, and led by professional CPA Sheila Ahler, the current Circle of Red Chair (COR). The organization is affiliated with the American Heart Association (AHA) and its “Go Red for Women” National Campaign. Each member is asked to make a financial commitment of $1,000- $2500 annually. This generous tax deductible contribution does beg the question, “how much is your heart health worth?” About 14 women were in attendance at this post-Valentine’s event, and COR Chair Ahler has already reached her membership goal of 24, but wants to surpass it.
For Ahler, heart disease is a family matter and deeply personal. Her father died of a heart attack at age 46 and her mother suffered congestive heart failure during surgery twelve years ago. If that were not enough, her husband was given a pacemaker four months ago, and she has now developed stress-related heart issues. Says Ahler, “I agreed to chair Circle of Red to honor the memory of my mother and father. …Circle of Red is a way to support the incredible AHA research in the area of women’s heart issues. …AHA is truly a family matter for me.”
While we were wined and dined, the aim of the COR events is to inform women on how they can prevent heart disease. We were given a healthy heart cookbook and had the opportunity to dialogue with a local physician and nutritionist.
Amy Bowen, a registered and licensed dietician from WakeMed Cary Hospital, encouraged us to focus on our eating habits and getting professional advice about diets. But it was Dr. Bhavani Balaravi, a cardiologist with the Raleigh-based WakeMed Faculty Physicians, who interestingly once worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, who told us some startling facts. Of the group of women in the room 1 in 8 was at risk of getting breast cancer. But for heart disease, 1 in 2 was at risk.
That’s a scary scenario. It means if two women are standing at a bus stop, one of us is at risk of having a heart attack, and probably dying. But what is more frightening is that women tend to be misdiagnosed because our symptoms are not the ones with which doctors are most familiar. The classic chest pains, tightening of the chest, and shortness of breath represent the symptoms frequently found in men. But women are different—as if we didn’t know that!
Symptoms for women who are experiencing heart problems frequently come in the form of fatigue, nausea, and are more often than not flu-like. That doesn’t mean a few won’t have the classic chest pains, but they are more likely to have a stomach ache or simply feel unexplained tiredness.
One woman in attendance told the story of a friend who presented these symptoms, assumed it was the flu, and showed greater concern about getting her children off to school than herself. Like most women, she put everyone else and their needs first; by the time she was taken to the hospital, the doctor informed her that had she delayed a few more hours, she would have died.
She’s the lucky one, but what about the others who have died needlessly because they didn’t recognize the symptoms? And, who were so busy taking care of everyone else, they forgot to take care of number one—themselves? As women, we are socialized to nurture, to be selfless, and to put our needs behind everyone else’s. As a result of this socialization process, we are dying, and in large numbers. Women make up over fifty percent of the world’s population. Globally, for a variety of reasons, we have a large number of families that are solely headed by women. When we die, it matters.
According to the Women’s Heart Foundation, “worldwide, 8.6 million women die from heart disease each year, accounting for a third of all deaths in women. Three million women die from stroke each year. Stroke accounts for more deaths among women than men (11% vs 8.4%) with additional risk for CHD [coronary heart disease] unique to women related to oral contraceptive use in combination with smoking.”
So is chocolate and wine the solution? Hmmm? I know you’re thinking “chocolate” and “wine”? Doesn’t sound like a healthy combination, but in fact, both are on the recommended list for those concerned about their heart—but with the caveat of “MODERATION.”
Dark Chocolate (especially the kind that is at least 65% cocoa) may have some benefits, if used in moderation. Why? According to a Mayo clinic website, the “flavanols in cocoa beans have antioxidant effects that reduce cell damage implicated in heart disease.” These flavanols tend to be found mostly in dark chocolate, but not in milk or white chocolate. They also are attributed to being able to “…help lower blood pressure and improve vascular function.”
So, don’t stock up on snicker bars and Milk Duds, but an occasional piece of dark chocolate might not only taste good, it could help reduce a woman’s risk of heart disease. So go ahead, treat yourself and take that dark chocolate break---mmmmm. What those who might want to add dark chocolate to their diet must also consider is whether they can tolerate the extra sugar (a big NO, if you’re diabetic) or the extra fat (an even bigger NO, for those who suffer from obesity).
Red wine may also aid in reducing the risk of heart disease—again, MODERATION is the key. This is not an invitation to encourage anyone to start drinking, but rather to let those who do indulge know that switching from white zinfandel to red wine may be helpful to their heart. According to Mayo again, the secret weapon is a polyphenol called “resveratrol.” Polyphenols are thought to “protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart.” Resveratrol is also seen as a key factor in the reduction of "bad" cholesterol and in the prevention of blood clots.
What Circle of Red also provides is a much-needed social break for women. Too often, we are on an endless treadmill of work and family, with too few opportunities to just sit and kick back. Circle of Red events offer women the opportunity to relax, network, and learn how to take better care of ourselves.
Pay attention. Every woman over the age of 25 is at risk of heart disease, and more likely to die when it happens unless we do something radically different.
The recipe for a healthy heart, beyond a little chocolate and red wine, is exercise, eating well, getting a preventive heart check-up, and finally, submission of those retirement papers from the jobs of Super Mom/Wife and Super Woman Worker.
My personal advice? Chill. Dance to some Aretha, Beyoncé, Madonna (great cardiovascular exercise)—whatever floats your boat or gets your toe to tapping, take at least a one hour walk four times a week, and take a break from everyone (children, spouse, partner, work, family, television and friends) to give yourself some down “woman time.”
The heart/life you save along the way may be your own.
© 2012 McClaurin Solutions
Irma McClaurin, PhD is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News of Minneapolis. She is an anthropologist and writer living in Raleigh, NC and a former university president. (www.irmamcclaurin.com) (@mcclaurintweets)
To learn more about how women can prevent heart disease, check out the following: