First Lady Laura Bush, an advocate of the national "Red Dress" awareness campaign to improve women's health, visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley on Wednesday to hear firsthand accounts of the cardiac disease epidemic facing American women.
Bush joined former First Lady Nancy Reagan in a brief tour of the library's new exhibit: the First Ladies Red Dress Collection. It includes red outfits worn by first ladies dating back to the 1960s.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women -- killing about 480,000 women a year, according to the American Heart Assn. -- and the red dress exhibit is intended to promote heart health.
"Most women think of heart attacks and heart disease as a man's disease, so they are later to go to the emergency room if they start to suffer any of the symptoms," Bush said, adding that new research shows that women tend to have different symptoms from men.
"They may not have the crushing chest pain you read about that men have," she said. "They might have a pain in their jaw or neck; extreme fatigue. I think that women just mark [these] off as a part of their life or as anxiety."
The first ladies later joined a panel discussion on cardiac health issues with doctors and five of their patients from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and the UCLA Program in Preventative Cardiology.
One patient, Lori Kupetz, said that although she exercised regularly and adhered to a vegetarian diet, she had to undergo an emergency triple bypass last year at age 39.
"Sometimes you're at risk no matter what you do," she said.
Cheryl Bland, whose mother died of a heart attack when Cheryl was 13, said she is very mindful of her diet, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. She said she also exercises regularly.
Bland said she wants to live long enough to see her children grow up. "I want to be sure I'm there to see to see them graduate from college and go on to marry and all that other stuff," she said.
Bland also said she is stern about household food choices to make sure her children learn proper nutrition early.
"It took a while for my daughter and son to get used to our new eating habits, but they're used to it now," she said. "They love salmon; they actually prefer it over a burger."
"Cheryl makes a good point," Bush said. "When parents make healthy choices, it really benefits their children."
Experts say more than 80% of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of a person's experiencing heart disease can be reduced or eliminated by adopting a healthier lifestyle.
James M. Rippe, the lone male cardiologist on the panel, said a national survey of 8,000 female healthcare professionals published in 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that women can improve their chances of avoiding heart problems if they don't smoke, maintain a normal body weight, exercise at least 30 minutes daily, eat more whole grains and fiber, and drink about half an ounce of alcohol a day.
After the heart health program, a motorcade whisked Bush to Northridge to visit Balboa Gifted/High Ability Magnet Elementary School, where she met with students.