02/09/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2012

Aisha Tyler Walks Red Dress Collection Fashion Show, Talks Personal Connection To Heart Disease

This year's Red Dress Collection Fashion Show marked a milestone for the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and it's annual "Heart Truth" campaign. The 10-year anniversary also offered actress and comedian Aisha Tyler an opportunity to not only walk the runway for the first time, but to reflect on her own connection to heart disease and the impact it's had on her diet and exercise choices day to day.

"My husband's father had heart disease -- he had one heart attack, recovered from it and made a lot of lifestyle changes, which I think extended his life quite a bit," Tyler says. "But in the end, he had a second heart attack that ended his life. It was devastating."

While heart health of the American population has improved overall over the last ten years -- some due to research, understanding of risk factors and better treatments and therapies -- not all Americans have shared equally in these improvements, says Dr. Nakela Cook, a cardiologist with the NHLBI.

"Heart failure rates for blacks and whites have leveled off a bit, but for black men, that rate continues to rise," she says. "And when you look at women, particularly African-American women, we know that the occurrence of coronary heart disease is about 7.8 percent compared to about 6.9 percent among non-hispanic white women," she adds, indicating that both the occurrence and complications from heart disease are much higher among blacks.


Where the gap shrinks, however, is in the area of awareness, Cook says. "Over the last ten years, awareness has risen dramatically. More women are finding out more about their personal risk for heart disease and trying to take action to reduce it."

For Tyler, that's meant working out everyday, incorporating yoga and hiking into her daily routine, eating very little red meat and dairy, and maintaining a healthy weight. "It can't just be waking up in the morning and thinking 'Well, I'm tired, but I feel fine.' You need to go to your doctor and get your cholesterol checked, get your other vitals checked so you have a really clear idea of what you need to do to improve."

Knowing where she stands and making healthy lifestyle choices weren't hard practices for Tyler to adopt, she admits. As athletes in college, both she and her husband have long-since had a sense of eating and exercising well. But weeding out things like desserts and soda from her diet did take some time, she says.

"Heart disease is predominately preventive," Cook says. "When you think about the risk factors for heart disease, there are certain things you can control and certain things that you can't." Family history and aging aren't variable, but risk factors like smoking and poor diet are.

In a new book called Health First: The Black Women's Wellness Guide, authors Eleanor Hinton Hoytt and Hilary Beard recommend the following steps to lowering your risk for heart disease:

  • Engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking or another activity that you enjoy, such as dancing, at least five days a week. If you need to, divide the period into shorter time frames of at least 10 minutes each.
  • Eating well-balanced meals that are low in fat and cholesterol and include several daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
  • Knowing your numbers--have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked regularly to ensure that they are in a healthy range.
  • Keeping your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol under control.
  • Limiting your alcohol intake to no more than one drink (one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor) a day.
  • Not smoking.