After her mother, Diana, underwent bypass surgery at age 81, legendary singer and actress Barbra Streisand wasn’t just shocked by the reality of a family member falling ill. “I later learned about the scope of the epidemic and was startled to discover that heart disease kills more women than men,” she explains. “It’s more deadly for us than all forms of cancers combined.” In 2014 these disturbing statistics prompted her, in partnership with philanthropist Ronald O. Perelman, to found the Women’s Heart Alliance, which supports research funding and treatment for female cardiovascular disease. “Heart disease affects women’s hearts differently than it does men’s, yet most of the research is based on men,” she says. “Because of this, women aren’t getting the same chance at life, and it’s unacceptable.”
Women are twice as likely as men to die after suffering a heart attack. How can we improve that ratio?
It’s all about creating a viral movement, like the Breast Cancer Awareness pioneers did decades ago. This starts with the younger generation—they are adept at sharing information with their communities through social media. That’s why we’ve seen success with our Fight the Ladykiller campaign, which brings a loud, bold, and disruptive voice to this issue in order to encourage action.
For the past 50 years, most cardiovascular research has been based on male subjects. Is there a misconception you’re hoping to correct because of this?
A lot of people don’t realize women’s symptoms are frequently different from and more subtle than men’s, which leads to the disease being misdiagnosed. Our first signs of a heart attack may include nausea, backaches, extreme fatigue, or shortness of breath rather than the Hollywood version of crushing chest pain, which is more common in men.
As you work to educate Americans, what’s the biggest challenge?
Women are not making a personal connection to heart disease. More people lose loved ones to heart disease than they realize because these deaths are often falsely attributed to natural causes or ailments like diabetes, which can lead to heart disease if left untreated. While many know it can be deadly, they don’t know it’s also largely preventable.
Why is there such a lack of knowledge?
Women are at the center of their families and often put their own wellbeing last. We must encourage them to make their health a priority by speaking to their doctors, learning the risk factors, and getting screened annually.
How do you stay motivated?
I think about the loss of so many mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and friends. I’ll keep talking about this issue at every event and dinner party I attend until we make progress.