February is American Heart Month. In order to help you make your heart health a priority, as heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, we’re speaking to experts about the different ways you can prevent heart disease, as well as with people who have had it.
Many people have followed Star Jones‘ weight-loss journey over the years and applauded the changes she was able to make to her body and most importantly, her overall health. But if you thought losing weight would be the end of health issues for the 56-year-old lawyer and TV personality, you’re mistaken. She certainly was.
Jones believed that she was in a good place after getting her weight and nutrition under control. However, her body was telling her differently. She felt incredibly exhausted and noticed that she was having heart palpitations. She received the wake-up call of a lifetime when she went to see a cardiologist and was told that she had heart disease. The truth was, Jones had been at risk for heart disease for years but overlooked her heart health. “I like most Americans never even focused on heart disease,” she said during our phone conversation. But whether she thought about it or not, it had been doing damage to her ticker, so much so that she required open-heart surgery in 2010 to repair a valve in the hopes of avoiding a full-blown heart transplant down the line.
After having her heart stopped for more than 20 minutes to fix it, undergoing cardiac rehabilitation and finally getting her “sea legs back” as she put it, Jones has made her heart health a top priority. She encourages others to do the same. We talked to her, an American Heart Association national volunteer, to bring awareness to this issue. We also spoke with Dr. Jennifer Mieres, an African-American cardiologist who is the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign cardiovascular disease expert. Here’s what you need to know, because your life truly is at stake.
MadameNoire: I first wanted to ask you if you could open up about how your open-heart surgery came about in 2010.
Star Jones: I can tell you that I like millions of other women thought that heart disease was considered to be an old white guy’s disease, because that’s really what you saw and would hear. You didn’t think of it as a woman’s disease when in reality, I should have known that heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. It’s the number one killer of African Americans, and the number one killer of women. I should have been put on notice, I’m the smart girl in the room, allegedly. I wasn’t. And also, I was at risk of heart disease because I had been obese for the vast majority of my adult life and again, I still didn’t know. I had weight-loss surgery, so I should have been feeling really good, but I wasn’t. I was getting intense heart palpitations. I would go from being seated to standing and get lightheaded. I was short of breath, and the most intense symptom was I was really fatigued. Not that fatigue women experience from daily living of children and family and husband and mates and work. No, it was a different kind of fatigue. And so I became my own advocate. I went in to see my cardiologist, and after a lot of testing, two days in fact, they diagnosed me with heart disease. And not only heart disease, but they said I needed to have open-heart surgery to repair an aortic valve to stave off a heart transplant down the line. So I was shocked. I didn’t expect it, but once I accepted it, I became laser focused on saving my own life. And after open-heart surgery — that was successful. They stopped my heart for 22 minutes while they corrected it, and I did three months of intense cardiac rehabilitation afterwards. The open heart surgery saved my life. The cardiac rehab gave me my life back so that I can not only be a heart disease survivor, but a heart health thriver. That’s where I am today.
Did you assume that after your weight loss, you had done the work and that you had had curbed any issues you might have with your heart health?
Star Jones: Let me be really blunt with you. I never thought that heart disease was something I had to think about even though, as I said, the vast majority of my adult life, I was obese. Even though I am the fifth generation of women in my family who has had heart disease. Even though I had been sedentary and I wasn’t getting the right exercise and I wasn’t eating correctly. I take all of that on my shoulders and that’s why I’m here to talk about it with women right now. We have to be honest with each other. Are we doing everything we need to do for our own heart health? I wasn’t, and yet it still wasn’t my front-burner issue. It slapped me in the face to become my front-burner issue, and that’s why I am so proud to sit here with Dr. Jennifer Meires because she really has been at the forefront of the Go Red Movement for the American Heart Association since the beginning. Laser focused on women’s heart health.
Dr. Mieres, what are the actions you would you say women should take to combat heart disease? What lifestyle changes need to be made?
Jennifer Mieres, M.D.: It’s important, as Starr pointed out, she had symptoms of shortness of breath, some palpitations, and she took it seriously. So the first thing that the American Heart Association Go Red for Women movement would like you to know, is that women need to know they’re at risk for heart disease. One in three women will be at risk for heart disease, but 80 percent of heart disease is preventable. The key factors are to know your numbers, know your blood pressure, your total cholesterol, your HDL, which is the good cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index, and then take active steps to really begin the journey to heart-healthy living. This month, the American Heart Association has joined forces with CVS. Through their MinuteClinic, every Thursday, women can walk in at 1100 locations nationwide and get heart checks. So the first thing is to know that you’re at risk, know your numbers, and then hone in on the fact that 80 percent of heart disease can be prevented by simple lifestyle changes. Especially for women of color, know your blood pressure. It can be controlled by choosing to be active every day, in addition to taking medication, changing your diet to have a colorful plate, and getting heart checks so you can customize a plan and establish a partnership with your doctor. Controlling stress, and that’s as simple as, exercise controls stress, finding time to laugh, finding time to meditate. And get family and friends to join you to get to 150 minutes of some sort of activity per week. So the key thing is to know you’re at risk, get your numbers checked so that you have your numbers, and then begin the journey with simple lifestyle changes.
Star, after you had the aortic valve surgery, did the way you feel kind of change? I know you said you felt a fatigue that was different from what you experienced before. How did your body kind of react and feel after the procedure?
Star Jones: Well, in all honesty, I was very afraid. You know, anybody who tells you that they have open-heart surgery and they were not scared is not telling you the truth. The fact that they crack your chest open and your heart is disconnected, in my case, for 22 minutes and a machine keeps you alive, it frightens you. And you have to kind of get your sea legs back, so that’s why cardiac rehabilitation was really key in changing my life and giving me my life back. Really giving me my confidence. I feel 100 percent confident in doing a full-out workout. Yesterday was a big intense day for me to get my 150 minutes for the week. I think I tried to get them all in one day, Dr. Mieres. In the morning, I did a spin class at noon, and then I followed it up with a tennis clinic at 2:00 PM before I got on a plane to come to New York. So when I tell you I take it very, very seriously, I do. My heart health is my number one priority. You know, whenever you get on a plane — and I laughed about it last night because I’ve said this so many times. One of the first things they tell you is in case of emergency, put your own face mask on, your own oxygen mask on before you attempt to help others. That’s a great analogy for women and health. We help everybody. We’re natural caregivers. We take care of our mates, our spouses, our children, our parents. We want to make sure everybody is okay, but we don’t take care of ourselves. We will literally be writhing on the floor in pain and won’t call 911 because we don’t want anybody to see that our kitchen is not clean. That is not acceptable. Heart health is your number one priority. It’s your front burner. It needs to be your focus for yourself because if mama ain’t happy, if mama ain’t healthy then nobody in the family us healthy, so it’s really urgent for us to focus on that. That’s why I’m excited to join with CVS, who is, as one of our nation’s leading healthcare companies, they really know that action as well as awareness, research and funding is imperative when it comes to women’s heart health. They’ve committed a three-year commitment and $15 million dollars to put back into research to the American Heart Association. They’ve made 1100 locations nationwide available for the MinuteClinics every Thursday in February for no-cost heart health screenings. Go in! You can get those five numbers that Dr. Mieres laid out for you. That’s your first step in the path of heart health. And as I like to say, when you have heart health, you have hope, and when you have hope, you have everything you need. African-American women need to focus on our own health and our own hope.