Paula Wolfson, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - The biggest killer of American women is not cancer. It's cardiovascular disease.
Roughly every minute of every day, a woman dies from heart disease -- and the victims are getting younger, defying the myth that it's a disease of the very old.
Dr. Susan Bennett, a Washington cardiologist, says it's "an epidemic."
"Since 1984, more American women have died of heart disease than American men."
But Bennett says the death rate can and will come down if more women heed the warning signs, make necessary lifestyle changes and know when to call 911. The worst thing they can do, she says, is to say "it can't happen to me."
That's the point being driven home by heart attack survivors in the D.C. region. Throughout February, which is American Heart Month, survivors and supporters are stepping up efforts to draw attention to heart health among women.
Gail Harris-Barry, who suffered her first heart attack in 2006, says women have to learn to take charge of their own bodies. She says diet and exercise are vitally important, but so is knowing your complete family health history. In her case, there was a strong history of heart disease on her father's side.
Most of the men in her family were dead before the age of 50.
"My dad had a quadruple bypass six months prior to my first episode -- in the same hospital."
Harris-Barry was 43 at the time.
Another survivor, Andrea Wongsam, was 35 and pregnant when her heart betrayed her.
"I had no clue that I was at risk for a heart attack," Wongsam says.
Now she is on a campaign to educate young women about the need to be vigilant about their heart health. She says it has given her "the most self-satisfying twist to this whole personal tragedy of mine."
Editor's Note: Throughout February, WTOP will be focusing on women's heart health, with information on prevention, treatment and reasons for hope. We also will bring you the incredible stories of survivors from the region -- a sisterhood of women celebrating a second chance at life with a commitment to help others.
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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)