Many women don’t know that heart disease is the number one killer of women, and many Latinas don’t know that they are especially at risk.
According to a study conducted by the American Heart Association, Hispanics have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease than Caucasians and are less aware of their cardiovascular risk factors. Among Mexican Americans 20 and older, 77.5 percent of men and 75.1 percent of women are overweight or obese. A staggering 30.7 percentof Mexican American women have cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, the medical director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute says,“the higher rate of death is more related to healthcare access and coverage.”
She also believes language barriers, lack of education, and income are significant factors. “The more educated and the more affluent, the better their health,” she says.
But for some Latina women like Olga Hernandez, 56, education, a good diet, and regular exercise are still not enough. Heart disease runs on both sides of her family, so Hernandez says she’s had to be proactive about her health and has been seeing a cardiologist for 10 years now.
But two years ago, Hernandez went to her doctor after she began feeling chest pains and her migraines became more frequent and intense. After her doctor ran tests, he found that her aorta was enlarged and she had to immediately undergo open heart surgery.
“When it’s genetic, people need to be proactive,” she says.
Erika Perez, 39, was only 37 when she had a massive heart attack. Shortly after giving birth to her third baby, she felt dizzy, tired, and had a pain in her chest. She postponed going to the hospital until the pain was too unbearable. At the hospital, they found she had a clot and a tear in her artery. She spent three days in the intensive care unit.
“It was really hard for me because I was going through a heart attack and postpartum,” she says. “I didn’t even talk about it. I was really sad.” Looking for support, Perez went to the American Heart Association website. “It helped me so much because other women were going through it. It helped me to see I wasn’t alone.”
Now both Hernandez and Perez volunteer for the American Heart Association to help raise awareness about heart disease.
Celebrity trainer and national spokesperson for the American Heart Association, Maria Simon got involved because of the heart disease in her family and because of the need to educate Latinas about their health. “I started realizing the lack of information that’s out there. There is not that much information disseminated to the Latino community,” she says.
February is Heart Disease Awareness Month and many organizations are trying to raise awareness among Latinos. The American Heart Association is promoting their Go Red Por Tu Corazón campaign and on February 1st, WomenHeart, the only national organization that provides patient supports for women living with heart disease, will also launch the first national heart health education program aimed at Spanish-speaking women.
“Messages about primary and secondary prevention are very much a part of what we do,” says Lisa C. Clough, director of communications and marketing for WomenHeart.
“Latina outreach and educating Hispanic women in the United States is really at the top of everyone’s radar.”
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.