The numbers are staggering: 43 million American women are affected by cardiovascular disease. The number of loved ones affected is immeasurable. February is Go Red for Women Month. Why does the American Heart Association feel the need to have such a program as Go Red? Because even today, after years of educational efforts, far too few women understand heart disease. Do you?

Women and heart disease, what do you know? T or F?

1. Heart disease is the number 2 killer of women.

2. Chest pain is a hallmark of heart attack in women.

3. Most women who have heart disease are smokers.

Happy 10th birthday for Go Red for Women! The American Heart Association birthed Go Red in an effort to reduce the mortality from cardiovascular disease among women. It has been very successful but as the numbers indicate, there is much work to be done. Heart disease remains the number one killer of women. Breast cancer, the number one fear of women, is not the number one killer. The more we know the more powerful we are against this killer.

A myth about heart attacks in women is that chest pain is the main symptom. Although a common sign for men, many women who have heart attacks do not have chest pain. Last weekend I took my elderly mother-in-law to an emergency department because she developed sudden onset shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting and wheezing. No less than 5 times the nurse said, “but you are not having any chest pain, right?” Right. “Well it doesn't sound like it could be your heart.” What?! It was her heart. Failing.

Historically, research on heart attacks involved only male subjects. Even today only about 24 percent of participants in heart related research are women. Therefore, what we know about heart disease is biased toward men. Women suffering heart attacks often have symptoms which do not fit the historic male model. Often heart attack symptoms are dismissed by women as GI upset or, “I just think I'm coming down with something.” “At least I don't have chest pain.” Of course chest pain is a sign of heart attack, but often there is no chest pain or discomfort. Other symptoms include arm discomfort (especially with activity), dizziness, indigestion, cold sweats, shortness of breath without chest pain, pain in upper back, flu-like symptoms, unexplained fatigue, weakness and nausea with or without vomiting.

Heart disease is more deadly than all cancers combined. All women (and men for that matter, but this is an article on Go Red), should know their own risk factors for heart disease. Ninety percent of women do not. Family history, high health numbers (including cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, weight) smoking and sedentary life style are among the most common risk factors.

Every minute an American woman dies from heart disease. Join the thousands of women and men in the Greater Kansas City area this Friday, Feb. 7 for Go Red for Women Day. Wear Red. Write down your risk factors. Make an appointment with your doctor to get your numbers checked and make a plan for cardiovascular health. Inspire the women in your life to do the same. You could save a life by spreading the word at your workplace, school or friend-circle.

See for more information about activities in the Kansas City area. Go Red. For your women. For yourself.

Answers: 1. F ; 2. F; 3. F.

Dr. Lori Boyajian-O’Neill can be contacted