- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

As a licensed psychotherapist, Irene Pollin of Bethesda says she was “stunned” to learn that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.

“How could I have not known that? I’m working in the field,” says Mrs. Pollin, who has worked in health care since 1975 and founded three clinics specializing in chronic illnesses, including one at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest in 1986. She and her husband, Abe Pollin, co-own the Washington Wizards and the Verizon Center in Northwest.

Even though she lost her mother to a heart attack, Mrs. Pollin figures she was like a majority of women, unaware that heart disease kills more women than the next top 10 diseases combined. She then spent more than a year figuring out a way to develop an awareness campaign and get out the message about the risks and dangers of cardiovascular disease.

“Nobody ever put a spotlight on it,” Mrs. Pollin says, adding that the disease was not ignored but was included under the women’s health umbrella. “Heart disease is the number one killer of men. The thing is, everyone knows that.”

In 2000, Mrs. Pollin founded the Sister to Sister: Everyone Has a Heart Foundation in Chevy Chase to increase awareness of heart disease and encourage women to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. The organization offers health screenings, the most recent of which was held Tuesday for Capitol Hill staffers during the fourth annual Capitol Hill Heart Health Screening Day. The event drew about 250 people.

“The issue is, how do you change people’s behavior?” says Mrs. Pollin, author of two books on chronic illnesses, “Medical Crisis Counseling: Short-Term Therapy for Long-Term Illness” and “Taking Charge: Overcoming the Challenges of Long-Term Illness.”

The Sister to Sister foundation provides educational materials and free screenings for women (men are welcome to attend) to identify any risk factors they have for developing heart disease and to encourage a change in any unhealthy behaviors. Risk factors include inactivity, obesity, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. The screenings check for blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels with results given on site.

Susan Baker, finance manager for the Sister to Sister foundation, had her cholesterol checked, something not included in her annual health exams. “I don’t think a lot of people make appointments to do that,” Ms. Baker said.

“When they offer things like this, it would be foolish to not take advantage of it,” said Elizabeth Kelly, a congressional staff assistant and scheduler attending the screening events.

Counselors, physician assistants and pharmacists offered counseling time to explain the results and discuss ways to make healthy behavioral changes, such as eating a healthy diet, limiting salt intake, losing weight and stopping smoking.

The foundation provides easy, open access to health screenings and information, says Nancy Rosen, chief executive officer of the Sister to Sister foundation.

“Even if you get bad numbers, we’re giving you tools to make a difference to change your life,” she says.

Eighty-two percent of heart disease can be prevented by addressing the risk factors, Ms. Rosen says. Two risk factors that cannot be changed, however, are age, which becomes a risk at 55, and family history, she adds.

The risk factor of a diet high in cholesterol can lead to deposits in the arteries, and the blockages can cause heart attack and stroke, says Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, a cardiologist and director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

Another risk factor, smoking, can injure blood vessels and lead to blockage and blood clots, Dr. Nabel says. High blood pressure can result from a high-salt diet and being overweight, she says. High blood pressure, in turn, can lead to weakness of the heart muscle, or heart failure and blockages in the blood vessels.

“When I think of heart disease, I think it’s a reflection of our lifestyles,” Dr. Nabel says.

For women, estrogen is believed to be a protective factor in reducing the risk of heart disease until they enter menopause and estrogen is not produced, says Yvonne Green, director of the Office of Women’s Health for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“Menopause is a time when risk increases,” says Ms. Green, a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife. “We can’t change our age, but other things can change. … Because we can change our risk in some ways, it’s important to recognize prevention, not letting those things happen in the first place.”

One in three American women dies from heart disease, while one in 30 dies from breast cancer, according to the NHLBI Web site (www.nhlbi.nih.gov).

Coronary heart disease is the main form of heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, that can lead to a heart attack, according to NHLBI. A heart attack is caused by a blocked artery preventing oxygen and nutrients from reaching the heart. Stroke, chest pain and high blood pressure are other forms of cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease can be nondescript and difficult to detect, Dr. Nabel says.

In the case of heart attacks, men and women experience different symptoms. Women’s symptoms can include chest pain that can appear at other sites, such as the jaw, neck, back or stomach.

However, some women do not like the term “painful” when associated with heart disease, says Dr. Patricia Davidson, a cardiologist at Washington Hospital Center. “Heart disease is not really painful,” Dr. Davidson says. “Women know pain [associated with labor] so they wouldn’t consider heart pain to be painful.”

Women can experience difficulty breathing, dizziness, fatigue, fluttering or rapid heartbeats, and nausea. Men can experience sudden pressure, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that goes away and returns, along with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath and sudden onset of rapid heartbeats.

The Sister to Sister foundation held its first screening in February 2001 in the District. Each year, the foundation has added cities to the one-day event, which is held the third Friday of February. This year, the event was held in 14 cities, including the District and Baltimore; 31,000 women attended, and 10,000 were screened. In the past six years, 82,000 women have attended the events, with 28,500 screened.

“The idea for them is to get a sense of their health, to understand it, to think about it and to take action,” Mrs. Pollin says.

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