In 2002, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) launched The Heart Truth® campaign to issue an urgent wakeup call about heart disease, which claims the lives of more women in the U.S. annually than all forms of cancer combined.

The benchmark public health awareness initiative – which Diet Coke has passionately supported over the last six years – raises awareness to support women’s heart health education and research. This year’s Heart Truth campaign continues to unite women in the fight against their No. 1 killer by sharing the stories of those who are taking action to protect their hearts and inspiring others to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.

We recently caught up with Ann Taubenheim, NHLBI’s Heart Truth campaign project director, to learn more:

Awareness of heart disease among women has nearly doubled over the last 13 years. How has The Heart Truth helped to advance the women’s heart health movement?

When we launched the campaign, only one in three women in the U.S. were aware that heart disease was their number-one killer. In the most recent national survey conducted by the American Heart Association in 2009, that statistic had climbed to 54 percent. The Heart Truth helps translate science and research into education and outreach to help improve the lives of women, working together with our partners to build awareness and promote heart-healthy behavior. The increase in awareness is contributing to the steady decline in the death rate from heart disease among women.

The 2009 survey showed that awareness is leading to action. Of the women who know that heart disease is their leading cause of death, 35 percent are more likely to be physically active, and 47 percent are more likely to lose weight than those who are less aware. So we’re clearly doing some things right.

What more needs to be done?

Lady on runway in red dress

Cindy Parsons became the first non-celebrity to walk the Red Dress runway earlier this month. The Connecticut native lost 77 pounds and lowered her blood pressure through the Follow the Fifty community program.

We need to leverage the awareness we’ve built over the last decade to motivate women to make lifestyle changes that will lower their risk of heart disease. Personalizing heart disease is, indeed, a challenge. Many women tell themselves, “It’s never going to happen to me,” or “It’s somebody else’s problem.” That’s why individual stories are so powerful. At the Red Dress Collection Fashion Show earlier this month, we featured a program called Follow the Fifty, which was supported by a grant from The Coca-Cola Company. A group of women in Connecticut have formed a sisterhood through this program, motivating each other to make lifestyle changes. What we’re trying to achieve at the community level is really the heart of The Heart Truth campaign, because that’s really where behavior change takes place thanks to the support networks that are formed and the one-to-one interactions that take place.

Why has the red dress symbol resonated with women over the years?

A red dress embodies power, heart, confidence, femininity, credibility, fun and hope. Most importantly, the icon has been a connector of women from all walks of life. The fashion industry has been an essential driving force in nationalizing the campaign. The designers and celebrities attract media attention, which helps us get out our critical public health messages.

What value does Diet Coke bring to the conversation?

We can’t do this alone; government is only one entity. Diet Coke’s marketing power greatly expands the ability of The Heart Truth to reach more women. The brand’s multifaceted programs over the last six years have engaged millions across the country through event sponsorships, distribution of educational materials, on-pack promotions, retail signage, advertising and partnerships with Subway, HSN and others. Diet Coke also has done a lot of programming and outreach for employees and worked with partners to educate nurses, dieticians and other health professionals about heart disease. Plus, they have contributed more than $500,000 to The Heart Truth Community Action Grant Program, to date. Simply put, we wouldn’t be where we are without partners like Diet Coke.

The Heart Truth campaign focuses on women between the ages of 40 to 60, when risk of heart disease starts to rise. Why is it equally important for younger women to be aware?

Heart disease develops over time, often starting at an early age. About 60 percent of young women between the ages of 20 and 30 have one or more risk factors. Some have diabetes or high blood pressure. Others smoke, or are overweight. And more than one in four women between 18 and 44 are physically inactive. It’s important for younger women to be aware that their behaviors now will impact their heart health as they get older… and that heart disease is preventable. Getting through to younger women is a challenge because they’re thinking about so many other things. Heart disease isn’t on their radar screen.

Are heart disease symptoms different for women than men? Are they more difficult to spot?

Yes and yes. Signs and symptoms for coronary artery disease (CAD) – the most common type of heart disease in the U.S. – may differ for men and women. Some women experience no signs – we call those cases “silent CAD” – and may not be diagnosed until they have a heart attack, heart failure or heart arrhythmia. The most common symptom of CAD for men and women is called angina – chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. In men, angina can often feel like pressure squeezing inside the chest and may extend to the arms. Women may describe their chest pain as sharper or more of a burning sensation, and are more likely to have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, stomach or back. For men, angina tends to get worse with physical activity or go away with rest, yet women are more likely to have angina when resting or sleeping.

What steps can women take to lead a heart-healthy lifestyle?

It starts with understanding your risk factors and having a clear understanding of a few key numbers: blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, total cholesterol, triglyceride levels, blood glucose, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference. Getting pre-screened for diabetes is also important. Then, armed with this information, women should have a conversation with their primary care provider about their risks and the steps they should take to live a more heart-healthy lifestyle – from not smoking, to maintaining a healthy weight by eating right and being physically active.

What’s the most common myth about heart disease in general?

Thankfully, we’re getting past the notion that heart disease is only a man’s disease. But two other myths are still prevalent. One, that heart disease only affects the elderly. And two, that heart disease will “never affect me.” As I said, it’s hard to get on a woman’s radar screen. Take me, for example. I’m a nurse. My first job was in the cardiac ICU, and I have a family history of heart disease. However, I never worried or thought about heart disease until I started working on The Heart Truth campaign. This job has opened my eyes and made me realize that I need to work on my own heart-healthy behaviors.

Part of the National Institutes of Health, the NHLBI plans, conducts, and supports research related to the causes, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of heart, blood vessel, lung and blood diseases; and sleep disorders. The Institute also administers national health education campaigns on women and heart disease, healthy weight for children, and other topics.

®The Heart Truth is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.