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A steady beat of advocacy in Howard County during heart health month

A steady beat of advocacy in Howard County during heart health month
Virginia Johnson, director of the state Bureau of Long Term Care, left, and Angela Hammond, of womenheart.org, an advocacy group, were among those at a Feb. 2 JustLiving Advocacy and NonProfit Collaborative of Howard County event on National Wear Red Day. (Courtesy photo)

Nanette “Nette” Stokes returned to her job as a financial analyst at IBM Corp. after a lunch break on Sept. 22, 1988, to an emergency phone call. Her mother, who she had just talked with an hour earlier, had suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital.

Stokes said her mother, who was 54, appeared to be in perfect health, but died suddenly.

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Now in her 60s, Stokes has made it part of her mission to educate women about the importance of heart disease awareness and an advocacy group she founded was among a number of groups in the area marking American Heart Month, first designated in 1964.

This month’s activities have included educational seminars, health fair screenings, Wear Red Day and the Baltimore Heart Ball, which raised more than $500,000 for research and advocacy.

Heart disease, according to Go Red for Women, an initiative created by the American Heart Association, is the number one killer of women, responsible for one in three deaths each year.

Although heart disease is often thought to be a problem for men, around the same number of men and women die from heart disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Howard County, JustLiving Advocacy and NonProfit Collaborative of Howard County, hosted an event on National Wear Red Day earlier this month in Columbia to raise awareness of heart disease in women and how to prevent it.

JustLiving Advocacy, an organization founded in 2016 by Stokes, is dedicated to improving the lives of single mothers by providing programs that address affordable childcare, employment opportunities and heart disease concerns.

“[These women] are mothers, they are daughters, they are aunts, they are sisters, they are friends,” Stokes said. “It is especially important because women hold a high percentage of holding up their households as a single parent. Heart disease is not an old lady disease.”

Women 25 to 34 years old had the lowest awareness rate of any age group at 44 percent, according to the Women’s Heart Disease Awareness Survey by the American Heart Association in 2012. It was also found that women in this age group were less likely to report not discussing heart disease with their doctors.

Not only does heart disease affect women of all ages, but of all races – with women of color being the most susceptible. African American women have an estimated 40 percent chance of having heart disease or stroke, while Hispanic women have an estimated 30 percent chance, according to Women Heart, The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.

“African Americans tend to suffer from high blood pressure,” said Van-Khue Ton, a cardiologist specializing in advanced heart failure at the University of Maryland Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “If they come from inner city areas they can have poor access to healthy diets. By virtue of being an African American, you may be at risk for high blood pressure.”

Another risk factor is being overweight or obese, which can cause sleep apnea and high blood pressure, major contributors to the rise of heart disease, experts say. “Overweight,” according to the Harvard School of Public Health, is having a body mass index between 25 and 29.9, while “obese” is having a body mass index of 30 or higher. Other risk factors include – age, diabetes, family history of heart disease, high blood cholesterol, lack of exercise and smoking.

While heart disease affects 44 million women across the U.S., it can be managed by eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and speaking to a doctor, according to the American Heart Association.

“It is important for women to be aware of the affects of heart disease because it can be prevented,” Ton said. “You can motivate a lot of women to try to do better. Seeking help can help them be aware of what they need to do.”

Stokes said the first step to heart disease prevention is awareness. National Wear Red Day is a good place to start, she said, but it takes more than just one day.

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“Women need to be aware and know when to take action because they are aware,” she said. “You do not want to be the woman who is too sick to care for her children or be the daughter who did not make her mother aware. Heart disease is something that is 80 percent curable, you do not have to get it.”

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