Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins
February brings to mind thoughts of Valentine's Day and images of hearts. But the heart is much more than a symbol - it is also a vital organ that is all too often taken for granted. Cardiovascular diseases are our nation’s number-one killer. Every year since 1963, Congress and the President have joined together to proclaim February as American Heart Month to urge Americans to join the battle against these diseases.
Nearly 80 million Americans suffer from heart disease, stroke, or some other form of cardiovascular disease. The toll is especially high among American women, taking the life of one female in the United States nearly every minute. Studies have shown that while the heart disease death rate is declining in men under age 45, the rate in young women has actually increased. Yet many women do not even realize they are at risk – nor do their physicians. Among women, cardiovascular disease truly is the “silent killer.”
That is why I have joined my Senate colleagues to sponsor the HEART (Heart Disease Education, Analysis, Research, and Treatment) for Women Act. This bipartisan legislation, a top priority of the American Heart Association, takes a multi-pronged approach to improving the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of heart disease and stroke.
The first step is education. This legislation would raise awareness of this threat through grants to better educate women and their health-care providers about the prevalence and unique aspects of care for women in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. It also would provide funding for the Medicare program to conduct an educational awareness campaign for older women about their risk for heart disease and stroke.
It also would strengthen analysis, research, and treatment efforts for women. Experts believe that a primary reason women are at such great risk of dying from cardiovascular disease is that the preponderance of studies, including the research their physicians are most familiar with, have been targeted at men. As a result, women with heart disease are less likely to be diagnosed until their disease is at an advanced stage and less likely to receive aggressive treatment. In many cases, it is not even known whether new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat cardiovascular disease are safe and effective in women.
The HEART for Women Act would address this shortcoming by requiring that health-care data that are already being reported to the federal government be broken down by sex, as well as by race and ethnicity. This information would include clinical trial results, and data on pharmaceutical and medical device approval, medical errors, hospital quality, and quality improvement. This body of knowledge will greatly increase the ability of our health-care providers to diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease among their female patients.
This legislation also would improve upon a program that already is producing outstanding results. WISEWOMAN (Well-Integrated Screening and Evaluation for Women Across the Nation), which is administered by the Centers for Disease Control, provides hearts disease and stroke prevention screening, such as tests for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, to low-income uninsured and underinsured women in 14 states.
The benefits of this program are clear: women who participate in WISEWOMAN are more likely to return to their health-care provider for regular health screenings, and have experienced significant reductions in blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Best of all, 10 percent who came into the program as smokers have quit! The HEART for Women Act would expand this proven program to all 50 states, including Maine.
It is vitally important that women and their healthcare providers become more aware that cardiovascular disease is not just a “man’s disease,” and that we address disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease and stroke in women. The HEART for Women Act will help provide much-needed knowledge and resources to fight back against this silent yet devastating killer.