By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON —The No. 1 killer of women in the United States is heart disease, and women veterans are in no way exempt. In fact, by some measures, they have higher rates of heart disease risk factors.
That is the reason the VA took to the street outside its national headquarters recently at a “VA Goes Red” health expo to raise awareness of heart-disease risk for women, particularly for women veterans and VA employees. The event included a variety of activities, including an opportunity to participate in Zumba fitness exercises and health screenings.
VA’s Undersecretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey told event participants that heart disease’s status as the No. 1 killer of women veterans “should be a wake-up call.” She reminded women veterans who are not accessing the care available to them to do so.
“Please, please. You served. Stand and declare yourself a veteran. Get the help and the benefits that we have available to you, and make sure you understand your risks,” she said. “We are improving. We are increasing our access and our ability to prevent heart disease.”
VA officials have been drawing special attention to women’s heart health this year. In May, VA and the American Heart Association announced a collaboration to educate women veterans about their risks for cardiovascular disease through the use of online “Go Red For Women” 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.
“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 VHA’s Comprehensive Women’s Health for the Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group, told reporters this summer in explaining the collaboration.
American Heart Association President Donna Arnett, PhD, MSPH, told participants at the health expo that, because of the misperception that heart disease does not strike women, raising awareness about the disease’s impact on women is more important.
“Many people still feel like and believe that heart disease is that stressed-out man walking down the street at a fast pace with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I am here to tell you today that heart disease is much more than that. It is not just a disease of men,” she said.
The issue takes on a growing importance for VA with the increase of women veterans. The VA’s draft report “Strategies for Servicing Our Women Veterans” pointed out that the number of women veterans using VA has increased 83% in the past decade, from about 160,000 to over 292,000 between fiscal years 2000 and 2009, compared with a 50% increase in men. Women now are the fastest growing cohort within the veteran community, according to the report.