Barbra Streisand's Latest Passion: Women's Heart Health

02/02/2011 10:25 am ET | Updated Feb 03, 2012

You know how inspired I am by women who never stop dreaming -- and superstar Barbra Streisand is a wonderful example. Her success could have meant a life of leisure now, but that's not for Barbra! She's now leading a $10 million fundraising campaign on behalf of the Women's Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles -- she herself will donate $5 million, and she's spearheading an Internet campaign to raise the rest. I couldn't wait to talk to Barbra about her newest passion. --MT

How extraordinary that you have jumped into the health crisis for women just as you have, so passionately and seriously, in all other parts of your life. But why heart disease? Has heart disease touched you in a personal way? Did your mother have heart disease?

I have always been an advocate of women's issues and I have been outspoken on issues of gender inequality throughout my career. When I discovered that gender inequality still exists in the medical sciences when it comes to research and treatment of heart disease, I was stunned and knew I had to do something.

My mother did not suffer from heart disease, but I have had both close friends and family members impacted by the illness. Sadly, I think most people have had someone in their lives who has suffered a heart attack and/or has all the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It has now become an epidemic, given that 500,000 women in the United States die from heart disease each year, and women are more often hospitalized for heart failure.

Given that it is such a huge problem for women, why do you think heart disease has failed to spark the fundraising fever that, say, breast cancer has? Are there plans to get everyone to work together, the way everyone comes together in October for breast cancer awareness, and get a nationwide campaign going to educate women on preventing heart disease?

Years ago, public figures like Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford spoke out about breast cancer, a topic that was previously taboo. Rightfully so, this empowered women. I think women view their reproductive organs as what makes them unique, so they have joined together to make a difference. It's time for women to "own" their hearts as well, and give them the attention they deserve. Our hearts are just as unique as we are.

February is Heart Month and women are wearing red to demonstrate their support for women's heart health. Additionally, the researchers dedicated to women's heart health collaborate and share their findings at conferences and in cooperative research studies. However, with more funding we can support collaborations that can ultimately save more women from heart disease.

As a layperson, how do you explain why heart disease in women is different than in men? And why is this only coming to light now?

Twenty-five to fifty percent of women don't fit male patterns for heart disease. Women having a heart attack, for example, don't always experience what men usually do: chest pain associated with exertion. Instead, they may feel chest pressure, indigestion, shortness of breath, or fatigue. Also, women in the 45-65 age group in particular experience heart disease caused by reduced blood flow in the small arteries of the heart, not by blockage of a major coronary artery, as is frequently the case in men. For these reasons, the need for gender-specific treatment is obvious and urgent.

This is all coming to light now because for decades, most heart disease research was done on men. Despite the best intentions of the medical community, women with heart disease have often been diagnosed and treated based on research outcomes done mostly on male patients. Unfortunately, those approaches don't always work for women. Because of this, we are nearly 50 years behind in our knowledge about how to best address heart disease in women. Women need to empower themselves. They need to be better educated about recognizing the risk factors for heart disease and how to prevent it. They need to take control of their own heart health by making it a priority to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, eat heart-healthy foods, and reduce stress. Gender-specific heart care and lifestyle changes have the potential to decrease the number of women afflicted with this life-threatening disease.

In addition to raising money, I believe it's also imperative to raise awareness about this issue. So in order to really engage people around the country, we launched an Internet fundraising campaign with a company called Crowdrise, a new online fundraising community that unites people to raise money and volunteers for important causes. I have never done anything like this before, but we have asked people to donate whatever they can -- $10, $20, $50 -- to www.crowdrise.com/barbrastreisand. The outpouring of generosity has been wonderful and inspiring to see. We still have a lot of money left to raise, but the early response of our efforts has been very positive.

Has your deep involvement in this affected how you take care of yourself?

Because I have been performing in front of the camera or in front of a live audience for all these years, I have always been conscious about what I put into my body. But food is a passion for me, so it's never been easy to say no to dessert or avoid the bread basket sitting on the table. I try to do everything in moderation and I work out consistently. I have learned that we cannot take our health for granted, and the more I learn from Dr. Merz and talk to friends who have reversed their own heart disease, I realize nutrition and exercise are key factors to having and maintaining a healthy heart.

And finally -- one of the conversations we frequently have at MarloThomas.com is about realizing our dreams. As a pioneer in the women's movie-director movement, did you feel a sense of 'mission accomplished' when Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar for 'The Hurt Locker?'

It was an honor and a thrill to be able to present the best director Oscar to Kathryn. I thought she was deserving of all the accolades she received. Regardless of gender, she did a wonderful job directing "The Hurt Locker" and I was so happy that the Academy acknowledged that. But yes, as I said on stage before presenting her with the award, the time had come!

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