01/28/2014 01:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Paint the Town Red (and Black) for Heart Disease in Women

Every February, I call my mother, my three sisters and several of my girlfriends to remind them to wear red on National Wear Red Day -- to promote heart disease awareness in women. Wear Red Day came and went last year, and every last one of the women that I'd called -- all African-American women -- "forgot" to wear red. One of my closest friends from college, a 41-year-old lawyer in Baltimore with hypertension and pre-diabetes (all risk factors for heart disease) toldme: "Well, the Ravens are playing this week, so we were all planning to wear purple."

I was crushed.

Data from the American Heart Association indicates that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. Although awareness of heart disease as the No. 1 killer of women has increased over the last 30 years, awareness among women at greatest risk -- African-American women -- is only at about 36 percent.

This is where awareness rates were for White women almost 30 years ago.

Across the United States, African-American women live sicker and die younger than their White counterparts, primarily as a result of heart disease. And although all African-American women are at increased risk of heart disease compared to White women, recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest that African-American women aged 35-44 have rates of heart disease that are higher than those of African-American men, White men, and White women. Because rates of obesity and hypertension are highest among African-American women compared to these other groups, it is likely that rates of heart disease in African-American women will only worsen over time.

And while it may seem as if this only has an impact on African-American women and those who love them, The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimates that health disparities like this cost the country $1.24 trillion in health care expenditures every few years.

Thus, there is a real need to increase awareness and focus on heart disease prevention efforts in women, especially young African-American women. What most women don't know is that the best time to think about heart disease is before you get it.

Heart disease develops over a long period of time, so for young and middle-aged women, the threat is not as immediate, or "in your face," as a deadline at work, a child's ear infection or even a potential loss by your favorite football team. The challenge then, particularly for African-American women, is getting them to care about something that may or may not happen 5-15 years in the future, over what is happening on a day-to-day basis in their lives.

My sister is a 43-year-old African-American woman who, like many Americans, lives in an area hard-hit by the recent economic recession. She got divorced from her high school sweetheart almost a decade ago and has primary custody of their 13-year-old son. She was recently laid off -- and while she found another job, she has had to take a 40 percent pay cut. She experienced incredible stress and worry in the year leading up to her layoff that was then compounded by a diagnosis of pre-hypertension. The last thing on her mind was thinking of ways to reduce her blood pressure. Not to mention that she lives in a neighborhood where there are few green spaces or safe areas to exercise.

Her solution? Meeting a similarly stressed friend each morning to walk along the lake (a 15 minute drive from her house) after driving her son to school. They are able to talk to one another about the difficulties they face as well as incorporate some exercise. Her most recent visit to her physician showed that her blood pressure is now in the normal range.

National Wear Red Day was created over 10 years ago to educate the public about this deadly disease. Get informed. Risk factors for heart disease include smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and physical inactivity. Begin by visiting your physician regularly to monitor your level of clinical risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes. Watch your weight. Try to incorporate some physical activity into your daily life.Big changes can be tough, but little changes can go a long way. Go for a walk after dinner. Dance with your children. Play a video game with your family that incorporates physical movement.

Also -- because some research suggests that stress may play a role in heart disease for women, try to reduce stress by talking regularly with a friend or therapist if needed. Take 15 minutes each day to do something that you enjoy. Encourage your mother, your sisters and your friends to get checked. Volunteer to go to the doctor with them, if necessary.

Finally, National Wear Red day is February 7. Wear something red and help increase awareness about heart disease in women. Let's get people talking. Let's start taking care of ourselves. Let's save some lives.

Go ahead. Paint the town red (and black).

Tené T. Lewis, Ph.D is an Associate Professor at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta. She is also a Fellow in The Op-Ed Project's Public Voices Program.