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The Red Dress: Getting to the Heart of Women's Health

Female musical artists celebrate the conclusion of The Heart Truth's Red Dress Collection 2006 Fashion Show

Female musical artists celebrate the conclusion of The Heart Truth's Red Dress Collection 2006 Fashion Show on the runway at Olympus Fashion Week. Those wearing red dresses designed by America's top fashion houses included Amerie for Tommy Hilfiger (far left), Lindsay Lohan for Calvin Klein (second from left), Elaine Stritch for Charles Nolan (center left), Kelly Rowland for House of Dereon (center right), and Nelly Furtado for Betsey Johnson (far right).
Photo courtesy NIH/NHLBI

For the fifth consecutive year, The Heart Truth — a national awareness campaign about women and heart disease — launches its heart disease educational effort with the flair and style of the now-famous Red Dress symbol.

Heart disease may not be the first thing a woman thinks of when she considers her health risks. But it should be. In fact, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women. This crucial health message is reaching a growing number of women through The Heart Truth national awareness campaign. The campaign created and introduced the Red Dress as the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness in 2002 to help deliver an urgent wake-up call to American women. The Red Dress calls women to action and empowers them to protect their heart health and reduce their risk of heart disease.

Each year, The Heart Truth comes to life with the annual Red Dress Collection Fashion Show, which takes place during Fashion Week in February. The campaign includes a Red Dress pin, introduced by NHLBI in 2002 as the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness. The pin is available online at As a part of Fashion Week, National Wear Red Day, held on Friday, February 2, unites women across the country in the fight against heart disease.

"Women may not be aware they have symptoms of heart disease, in large part because women's symptoms can be subtle and they overlap with other illnesses," says Elizabeth G. Nabel, M.D., director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which sponsors the campaign. "Women often don't feel the classic crushing chest pain that is associated with a heart attack—they might have shortness of breath, fatigue, or pain in the arm, shoulder, or jaw."

Over the past five years, The Heart Truth campaign has been educating women about the risks of heart disease, including how to recognize these danger signs. Now, the campaign is focusing on how women can take action to reduce their risk.

The Red Dress

During last year's Red Dress Fashion Show, 23 celebrities walked the runway in stunning red dresses to their own music, including Lindsay Lohan, Lee Ann Womack, Christina Milian, Fergie, Sheryl Crow, Nelly Furtado, Eartha Kitt, LeAnn Rimes, Debbie Harry, and Kelly Rowland.

This year, leading celebrities and designers will debut "Celebrated Women 2007," the fifth collection of red dresses created to raise awareness about heart disease. The event takes place during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City. Participating celebrities will include Angela Bassett, Danica Patrick, Phylicia Rashad, and Rachael Ray, all wearing red dresses from designers such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Luca Luca, and Betsey Johnson.

"In my own family, there is a history of cardiovascular disease associated with diabetes," says Phylicia Rashad, former Cosby Show TV personality and popular entertainer. "It's important for women to know that through a proactive involvement in your health and lifestyle, heart disease is something that can be approached with a positive attitude toward prevention and change."

Rashad, who also took part in the 2005 Red Dress fashion show, is looking forward to the 2007 events: "I am happy to support this issue and to help women to take action in protecting their health."

A heartfelt gathering of women from the University of Texas at Austin

Women's Red Dress activities are held throughout the United States each February, such as this heartfelt gathering of women from the University of Texas at Austin last year.
Photo courtesy University of Texas at Austin

Seeing Results

"The good news is, heart disease is preventable," Dr. Nabel says. "If everyone had low levels of risk factors, heart disease in America could be reduced by about 80 percent. But having even one risk factor increases the chances of getting heart disease, and having multiple risk factors greatly increases risk."

The Heart Truth is already making an impact. Surveys by the American Heart Association show that awareness of heart disease as the No. 1 killer of women is on the rise. In 2000, only 34 percent of women were aware of that. By 2005, awareness had increased to 55 percent of women.

Even more encouraging, heart disease deaths among American women are decreasing. Of the women who died in 2003, one in three died of heart disease. Preliminary data for 2004 (the most recent year for which data are available) show that one in four deaths in women was due to heart disease—a decrease of nearly 17,000 deaths.

Women aren't just more aware of their heart risks — they're doing something about it. A recent study showed that women's knowledge about their personal risk of heart disease is associated with increased action to reduce their risk—they're more likely to step up their physical activity, eat healthier, and lose weight.

"In 2004, women's life expectancy at birth reached an all-time high at 80.4 years," Dr. Nabel says. "The decline in heart disease deaths has contributed to this trend."

NASCAR driver Danica Patrick

NASCAR driver Danica
Patrick is among those
taking part in this year's
Red Dress Collection
Fashion Show.
Photo courtesy of

Challenges Ahead

Dr. Nabel hopes this year's Red Dress Collection and other outreach activities will attract the attention of African-American and Hispanic women. She notes that while heart disease deaths have declined among women, African-American women are more likely to die of the condition, and at younger ages, than white women. Both African-American and Hispanic women have higher rates of some risk factors for heart disease. More than 85 percent of African-American women and 78 percent of Hispanic women ages 40-60 are overweight or obese. Both groups of women have high rates of diabetes, and more than half of middle-aged African American women have high blood pressure.

"Women are living longer, starting to live healthier lives and are dying of heart disease at a much later age than in previous years," Dr. Nabel says. "But heart disease in women is still underdiagnosed and undertreated, and this is a particular problem in the African-American and Hispanic communities. Our goal is for all women to take their risk of heart disease personally and seriously—and to do something about it."

Read More "The Red Dress" Articles
The Red Dress: Getting to the Heart of Women's Health / Guidelines for Better Heart Health / Heart Disease Affects Women of All Ages

Winter 2007 Issue: Volume 2 Number 1 Pages 4 - 6