VA Partners with Heart Association to Educate Female Veterans about Cardiovascular Health

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By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — The VA is adding another tool in its arsenal to fight heart disease and strokes.

The American Heart Association and the VA recently announced a new collaboration that will bring a heart association initiative known as the ”Go Red for Women” into the VA. Geared toward women, the initiative raises awareness of heart disease risk factors in women and provides additional tools for women already diagnosed with cardiac issues.

“Cardiovascular risk factors are very prevalent among women veterans, with nearly a third of women veterans having high cholesterol or high blood pressure. We see more women veterans in the 45- to 64-year range than any other age group. These are critical years for heart health,” said Sally Haskell, MD, acting director of Comprehensive Women’s Health for the Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group, VHA.

Staff at the Walla Walla, WA VA Medical Center participating in Wear Red Day this past February to raise awareness of heart disease in women.

The VA will educate women veterans about their risks for cardiovascular disease through the use of “Go Red For Women” online resources that includes “Go Red BetterU,” a free online nutrition and fitness program and “Go Red Heart Match,” a database that allows women to connect with other women who share similar experiences, according to the VA.

The American Heart Association originally developed “Go Red For Women” because, while nearly 500,000 women were dying from cardiovascular disease each year in the United States, many women were not paying attention.

Combining resources of the VA and the American Heart Association to reach women veterans is a tremendous opportunity, VA officials said.

“If we can educate women veterans about that risk and give them ideas about how to reduce that risk and also teach them about the differences in how heart disease presents in men and women, then we are improving their health and quality of life,” said Haskell. “Women’s health is not just reproductive health, but it is about caring for the whole woman, and the heart is at the center of that.”

John S. Rumsfeld MD, PhD, VHA’s national director of cardiology, said that while the “Go Red” resources are already available to any woman, having a healthcare system offer them underscores their importance to patients.

“Any women in the U.S. has obviously been able to sign up as an individual to avail themselves to participate in ‘Go Red for Women,’ but I think it is completely a different thing to have your healthcare system — to have your doctors, your nurses your healthcare team — saying, ‘Here are some resources that we think are important for you, for your cardiovascular risk. We want to bring them to you as options as part of your health promotion, your care plan,’” he said.

Treating Women

The announcement of the initiative came days after the VA released a draft for public comment of “Strategies for Serving Our Women Veterans,” a strategic report that addresses issues facing women veterans.

In FY 2009 and FY 2010, hypertension, along with PTSD and depression were the top three diagnostic categories for women veterans treated by VHA, according to the report.

Robert Jesse, MD, VHA principal deputy under secretary for health, said that with a greater number of women and younger women making up the VA population than in the past, it is an opportune time to address cardiovascular risk factors.

“It is very important that we don’t just invest in the healthcare of veterans based on prior experience, but that we very much anticipate what is coming forward. In my mind, this is a huge opportunity to get in front of the younger veterans and be very proactive about the message of risk-factor modification, pay very close attention to hypertension, pay close attention to diabetes and absolutely quit smoking,” he said.

Haskell said the VA also started a women’s health and cardiovascular workgroup this year that is reviewing data on the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in the VA population.

“We are still at the point of gathering information, but it will be a big first step in our understanding of cardiovascular disease,” she said.

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