“Certainly, understanding of one's risk for any disease must be anchored in facts. But if we want our facts to translate into better health, we may need to start talking more about our feelings.” -- Lisa Rosenbaum, M.D. (Cardiology), University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

March is Women’s History Month, 31 days
dedicated to commemorating female [[wysiwyg_imageupload:180:]]leaders, innovators and those who defied conventionality to get ahead. As we honor the history of strong-hearted women, it is important to also take a deeper look at the history of our heart health.

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that heart disease has been the leading cause of death among Americans since the 1930’s. In 1984, more women than men died of heart disease, and for 20 years this statistic has remained the same.

We often link poor heart health to men, yet heart disease remains the number one killer among both men and women in the United States. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) found that only 20 percent of American women believe heart disease is their greatest health threat. Even if we understand the risk, the dreaded C-word (or cancer) often takes center stage when it comes to our health fears.  A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women in their 40s greatly overestimated their risk of dying from breast cancer during the next decade.

Fears of breast cancer among women (and men) are real and palpable with data from The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing us that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer found in women (206,966 women and 2,039 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States in 2010, and 40,996 women and 439 men died of breast cancer in the United States in 2010). Despite the numbers, heart disease maintains rank, claiming approximately 600,000 lives annually – more than all forms of cancer combined.

So why – despite the data – are our fears misaligned?  A recently published article from Lisa Rosenbaum, M.D. (Cardiology), University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the NEJM attributes this to “misfearing” – fearing instinctively, not factually.

With high blood pressure and heart failure claiming lives on both sides of my family tree, maintaining a happy heart has always been a top priority of mine. But how can other American, female consumers use this knowledge as fuel for action? The answer lies deep in our psyche and the unconscious tendencies we have as human beings. According to research from Dan Kahan, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, we tend to select facts that better reinforce our sense of self.

Dr. Rosenbaum took Dr. Kahan’s research and applied it to the disparity between breast cancer awareness and action, and heart disease awareness and action. The answer seemed to lie in the stories we share.  

Anecdotes of women battling breast cancer – whether defeating it or not – are rampant in the news. In October, we see pink ribbons on the wrist bands and shoes of NFL players and hear of new awareness walks or runs taking place in local communities to support cancer research. People are talking about cancer.

The AHA introduced the “Go Red for Women” campaign in 2003, a cause that is directly centered on female heart health. The website features information on heart disease and resources for women to learn about the risks. It also gives its readers a glimpse into the lives of women battling heart disease. It is through these stories – not facts – that action will transpire.

As public relations professionals, we are always seeking new, innovative approaches to move consumers. Drs. Kahan and Rosebaum have helped us recognize that the answer for action is fairly simple: find a story that permeates. By better understanding the influences behind our actions, we are able to design campaigns and craft language that reaches the core of our consumers. This is especially relevant when it comes to health-related PR tactics and provoking action.

As we go forward and support efforts to improve heart health, let us strongly encourage dialogue and storytelling among our peers, colleagues and clients; while also celebrating the women who fight heart disease and the preventative measures to beat it.