November is better known as Movember, and every October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is widely recognized and celebrated. But, what about September? It’s not as famous, it’s only one day, but it’s just as important: World Heart Day. This year, it was held on September 29.
On World Heart Day 2013, more than 100 countries around the world came together to organize myriad events and educational campaigns about heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular concerns. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, more than 20 million people will be dying every year as a result of cardiovascular disease; at the moment, heart disease is the number one global cause of death, responsible for around 17.3 million fatalities per year. Of all global deaths caused by a non-communicable disease, heart conditions account for nearly half.
An important point about cardiovascular disease, however, is that much of it can be prevented. Lifestyle choices, such as exercise, tobacco use and diet, are the main contributing factors toward heart disease. According to the World Heart Federation, 80 percent of early deaths related to cardiovascular condition could be prevented through changes in lifestyle.
Because of the avoidable nature of heart disease, education is a huge part of World Heart Day. Event organizers make a big effort to inform communities that when it comes to preventing cardiovascular disease, personal responsibility is a must. The World Heart Federation also encourages health care groups to get this message out to people of all ages and genders; not just those who are older or traditionally perceived as being at risk of having a heart condition. Heart disease should be an issue of concern for everyone, because being exposed to risk factors early in life will often mean health care problems in the future. Young smokers, or children who become accustomed to an unhealthy diet, or teens who lead a very sedentary lifestyle are putting themselves in danger of cardiovascular concerns as adults.
Every year, World Heart Day has a particular focus, and in 2013, that focus was women and children. The World Heart Federation encouraged organizations to create initiatives based around that theme; to design activities and campaigns that would target these two groups in particular, getting across the message of the cardiovascular risks that women and children face, and how they can avoid heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of women, despite a persistent myth that men more than women need to be vigilant about cardiovascular health. What’s more, informing women about heart disease can protect children as well, because some cardiovascular risks can begin during early fetal development. A pregnant mother struggling with diabetes or obesity will, according to some research, be more likely to give birth to a child who will experience cardiovascular health problems as an adult.
Another important part of promoting cardiovascular awareness to women is providing information on how heart health can affect women differently than it affects men. In support of World Heart Day, Dr Vijay Surase talked with Zee News in India about how women do not always experience the classic symptoms of a heart attack, and therefore do not know to seek medical help. We typically think of a heart attack victim as feeling discomfort in the chest, or shooting pains in the arm. Women more than men, however, are likely to feel shortness of breath, and a sharp pain in the jaw. Educating women and men about these variations in symptoms can help more women realize when they are having a heart attack, and seek treatment as quickly as possible – during a heart attack, acting fast can save the victim’s life.
Because the 2013 World Heart Day theme is centered around women and children, rheumatic heart disease has been a key issue in activities and education this year. Rheumatic heart disease is an acquired condition that affects patients, mostly children in developing countries, who have previously been infected with strep throat. When a case of strep throat leads to a rheumatic fever, rheumatic heart disease can result and lead to heart failure and death.
In order to prevent rheumatic heart disease, the initial strep infection must be properly treated with a course of antibiotics. Children or adults who have already experienced one bout of rheumatic fever may even be given ongoing doses of antibiotics, in order to reduce the chance of a strep infection or rheumatic fever reoccurring, and causing more damage to the heart. A patient whose heart has already been affected by rheumatic fever can be repaired by surgery, but of course, the procedure is both dangerous and expensive.
Rheumatic heart disease is most common in developing countries, where antibiotics are unaffordable for many families. The World Heart Federation works to reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever and heart disease by providing support for a range of programs in the developing world. Some programs might educate health care workers in how to prevent recurring fever through antibiotics, and other programs work to improve the cost and delivery of antibiotics. Because Africa experiences more rheumatic heart problems than any other continent, World Heart Federation programs focus primarily upon communities in that area.
Of course, like anyone, women and children must also be aware of the preventable factors that can lead to heart disease. The World Heart Federation reports that around 10 percent of cardiovascular conditions are related to smoking, and secondhand smoke is risky for heart health as well. Even when it’s not smoked, chewed tobacco can affect blood pressure and make the user’s blood more likely to clot, increasing the risk of stroke. Although more men than women smoke around the world, the number of women smokers is expected to grow in coming years, making it all the more important that education efforts inform women about the risks, cardiovascular and otherwise, of tobacco.