I wanted to share a creative and fun public health message that I ran across recently. Rosie O’Donnell, the stand up comedian and former daytime television host, suffered a massive heart attack in the summer of 2012. She didn’t realize that she was having a heart attack because the symptoms that she suffered were not the symptoms that we typically see portrayed in media or in public health messaging. She eventually went to see her doctor when her symptoms didn’t subside and found out that she had a 99% artery blockage, a scenario which almost always results in death. Thankfully Ms. O’Donnell survived and the experience inspired her to create a new comedy routine to both share her experience and to publicize the message about women, heart disease, and the types of symptoms women should look for and the actions they should take if they think that they might be experiencing a heart attack.

According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, causing 1 out of every 4 female deaths in 2009. Despite heart disease playing such an enormous role in female mortality across ethnic and socio-economic lines, only about half of women know that heart disease is such a significant issue. One of the major issues that Ms. O’Donnell identified in her comedy routine was that as a society, we are very familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack that are experienced by men, such as sharp chest pain, however we are not at all familiar with the unique symptoms which women experience. Women are much more likely to experience pain in the neck, throat, jaw or in the upper back, to feel exhausted and to be nauseous. Beyond not recognizing the symptoms, the American Heart Association says that the #1 reason why heart attacks kill more women than men is because women are significantly less likely than men to call 9-1-1. These delays in seeking help ultimately limit the treatment options available and result in higher mortality rates.

It is important that we share the symptoms of female heart attack widely and that they become as ingrained as our knowledge about heart attacks in men. It is also important that we encourage women to know their risk factors some of which can be changed (like smoking, exercise and diet) and some that cannot be changed (such as age, family history and race) and to proactively discuss heart health with their healthcare providers. Finally it is essential that we encourage the women in our lives to seek help immediately as soon as they notice anything off and not to wait-and-see or assume that their symptoms do not warrant a call to emerge services.

You can find Ms. O’Donnell’s full story and comedy routine online, but this is clip specifically relates to how she is getting the message out about women’s heart attack symptoms in a creative, engaging, and I think, effective way. Enjoy and please learn the risks and prevention methods both for yourself and for the ladies in your lives!