Despite working as a writer in New York City, I'm admittedly uninterested in television ads. Still, there was no way to avoid the fanfare of Always' Super Bowl commercial "Run like a Girl," which shows the pervasive cultural misgivings towards half the population as weak, whiny and wimpy (unbeknownst, of course, to pre-puberty girls who don't yet realize they aren't their brothers equals).
If our aim is a world where those girls (and boys) can truly "run like a girl," they're going to need strong hearts for all of it. No -- this isn't impassioned code for emotional resilience and empathy (though these matter, too). I'm talking about those young girl's literal, not figurative hearts, with so much life still left in them. They deserve a shot at so many things: one of them is a life free of heart disease.
The "Run Like a Girl" commercial shows a disconnect between how we anticipate women will act and how they actually do. Similarly, there's an inconceivable gap between our perceptions of women's hearts and their reality. Heart disease is the number one killer of women. A future president, mother, wife, scientist, sister, and boss dies roughly every minute from it. More (dis)heartening still: most, if not all of these deaths are preventable, trailing a wake of modern preventative care, drugs and surgery.
Heart disease rates among men have been steadily declining, while women's rate of decline has been slower. A very important factor? Women's heart disease symptoms can look starkly different from men's. Contrary to the pervasive myth that you have to go down on a shag rug clutching your chest and wailing in pain to be having a heart attack, women frequently experience subtle and often dismissible symptoms they're trained to ignore, like problems breathing, fatigue, stomach aches, and a vague sense of uneasiness. Many women think they have the flu, acid reflux, or are just plain exhausted. I'm speaking partly through statistics, and partly through heuristics.
I'm one of those women. I'm also 25, and had open heart-surgery a little over a year ago. Oh, and that's another thing. Heart disease is a numbers game, but not so far as age is concerned. My own taxing and bewildering journey into uncovering aortic stenosis was different than anything I've ever heard a doctor explain it as.
I can't speak for the thousands of women around the world living with heart disease. I just know for myself that many of my most telling symptoms were the ones that I had the most push back on from doctors. When I felt a progressive and unshakeable feeling of impending doom, I was told that I had anxiety. When I battled to get out of bed after spending 13 hours a night sleeping, I was told that I was probably depressed. I called my cardiologist's office twice in the month before my surgery and told them I felt like I was dying, without feeling like I ever met a human on the other end of that line. Unsurprisingly, that's also around the time I learned I had an aneurysm.
Statistically, women are significantly more likely than men to have their heart disease symptoms ignored by a health care provider or hospital. They are also twice as likely to die in the first year after a heart attack. For so many, as opposed to being treated as a woman, we're treated like women, with symptoms standing in for a person. And like those girls in the commercial, I've had to fight really hard to be taken seriously.
So why does this all matter?
Because women matter, and public health is not just a feminist's cause. When half of our population isn't taken care of, we all pay, whether it's financially or in other ways.
We've been given a false choice that to be treated equally means to be treated the same as far as our health goes. Let's move towards holistic health solutions that account for gender, but aren't prejudice against it. We are half of the workers and parents and people of this planet. We are your partners, and contemporaries, and family and friends. We're in your heart, and you're in ours. And we need to give those girls an excuse to run faster.