Attention, women: This researcher wants to save you – and help you save others

She hopes sharing tips on awareness, prevention will improve statistics

Bertha Hidalgo, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and associate scientist in the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center.

In honor of February being American Heart Month, here’s a quick quiz:

(1) Are heart attack symptoms the same for men and women?

(2) Do men and women receive the same quality of care after heart attacks?

The answer to both is no. If you got the answers wrong, you’re not alone. While heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, far too many of us are just not aware of the threat – and how we can empower ourselves and others to combat it.

My organization’s Go Red For Women movement is dedicated to changing that picture. Last year, we released a report about disparities in treatment of heart disease and stroke, the two most common conditions collectively called cardiovascular diseases, or CVD. In addition to breakdowns by race and ethnicity, researchers found this discrepancy between genders:

Source: American Heart Association's Inequality Report: Heart Disease and Women (2017)
 

Bertha Hidalgo was among the researchers who helped develop the report. While many of the findings surprised her, she was even more surprised when she talked to friends, family and others about heart disease.

Simply put, they had no idea. Not just about the details of her studies. They didn’t understand many of the basics about awareness, prevention and treatment.

“I heard people saying, `I didn’t know eating McDonald’s every day would hurt my triglyceride levels,’” Dr. Hidalgo said. “Their lack of certainty with some of these health topics means we’re not doing a good enough job as scientists and physicians to get the message out to the people who need it.”

So Dr. Hidalgo – whose specialty is studying diseases on a massive scale – became more committed to helping spread the word on a massive scale.

“Those of who learn at a higher level need to be able to communicate it to others who are not in their scientific circle,” she said.

How she reached that high level, and how she communicates it to others, is another big part of this story.

***

Bertha was raised in South Gate, California, a suburb of Los Angeles that’s close to the better-known suburb of Compton both in miles and makeup.

The oldest child of a mechanic dad and homemaker mom, she was in middle school when an “unexplainable drive” to learn powered her to switch schools. She left her neighborhood campus for a magnet program that required an hour-long bus ride each away.

Bertha became the first person in her family to graduate high school and the diplomas piled up: A bachelor’s degree from Stanford, a master’s from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Along the way, she’s worked at the National Institutes of Health, first in a molecular biology lab and later under the guidance of a pioneer in HIV research. She’s also worked at the National Genetics Institute and a lab at UCLA. For the past decade, she’s trained and worked at UAB, where she worked for Donna Arnett during Arnett’s term as volunteer president of the American Heart Association.

Bertha’s fondness for the organization grew during that time. So when she was asked to help with the Go Red report, she eagerly accepted.

And, of course, she was perfectly suited for it.

Every 79 seconds, a woman in the United States (US) dies from heart disease or stroke. That means heart disease and stroke cause approximately 399,028 women to die each year in the U.S., making cardiovascular diseases the leading cause of death for women of all races and ethnicities. Source: American Heart Association's Inequality Report: Heart Disease and Women (2017)
 

***

Early in her professional journey, Bertha considered becoming a physician. Then she learned about epidemiology, which is best described as studying patterns of diseases at the population level.

“Instead of seeing one patient at a time, epidemiologists see an aggregate of thousands of data points – sometimes millions – and pull them together in search of patterns for certain types of disease,” she said.

The chance to impact communities lured her in. She was especially enticed by the chance to study the community she knows best, Hispanics and Latinos.

Another “aha moment” came while she was in graduate school. Not during a class or an investigation. During a chat with her mom.

Bertha was discussing her work on cervical cancer research and the discovery that so many cases involved women who didn’t get routine screening, such as a pap smear. In passing, she said, “You are doing this, right?”

Wrong.

Bertha realized she had an opportunity– a responsibility, even – to pass along what she’s learned.

“I had to get away from the complex language of the ivory tower and explain it in a way that my family and friends could understand,” she said. “The Latino community responds to me. I look like them, I speak like them. They sense my underlying passion. They know I can truly understand their experience and incorporate it into what I know about health.”

She likes being a translator, of sorts, converting science into everyday English, Spanish and/or Spanglish.

“Whatever findings I publish, or whatever I learn about at conferences or meetings, I create these synopses that my husband can understand,” she said. “Then I post them on Facebook and Twitter to all the places where I’m connected to people who are not in my field.”

Having seen all the misinformation available on the internet, she takes pride in being a credible source.

“As researchers, we need to become better communicators,” she said. “It’s a role we can play and one we need to play. So that’s what I try to do – to put that one additional seed to the pot of knowledge in hopes of making a change.”

***

Helping compile and present the AHA’s Go Red For Women Inequality Report brought together many strands in Bertha’s professional and personal life.

It even prompted her to re-evaluate her own priorities.

As a wife and a mother of two, she realized that she was sometimes guilty of the underlying cause of the jarring 54 percent stat in the graphic referenced earlier.

“We tend to put ourselves last,” she said.

So women may not bother seeing a doctor. Or go to the pharmacy. Or take medication on time.

Sometimes, the report showed, women do these things to save money. It’s another example of women sacrificing their needs for what they perceive to be the family’s greater good … despite the potentially devastating long-term cost.

“That’s why it is important for us to have face-to-face conversations,” Bertha said.

The AHA held an event in Los Angeles last year that convened high-profile Latinas, members of the local media and bloggers. The aim was to teach key messages about cardiovascular diseases so they could teach their audiences. The teacher that day was Bertha.

There was interest in her report, but she noticed the most vigorous head nods when she covered the basics – things like 80 percent of heart disease risk being preventable, the keys being not to smoke, being physically active and eating a healthy diet.

“It’s not enough to do this work,” she said. “We need to make sure the findings we’re working so hard to generate through research are making it to the people it affects.”


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