The ladykiller

Barbra Streisand’s fiery fight against “grave gender disparity”

Barbara Streisand
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

When Barbra Streisand learned that heart disease kills more women than men in the U.S. and that research into its causes and treatments lags that in men, she donated $5 million to the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai in 2008 to try to right that imbalance. Since then she has raised and donated $17 million more and co-founded the Women’s Heart Alliance. In advance of her appearance at the Women in the World summit, she described why she had made women’s heart disease one of her causes:

Women in the World: What led you to make women’s heart disease an issue you wanted to devote your energy and resources to?

Barbra Streisand: When I learned there was grave gender disparity in heart disease research, funding and treatment (even when more women than men die of heart disease), and when I heard the staggering facts—like heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined—I was shocked and knew I had to do something . . .  It’s simply unacceptable that women are treated as second-class citizens, especially when we are more than 50 percent of the population and we are talking about life and death. Women are the center of the family, and every woman lost is someone’s mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt or friend, but too few women know they need to be fighting back or how.

WITW: How did you and Ronald Perelman come together to do this?

BS: About eight years ago, after learning the startling facts regarding women and heart disease, I was inspired to make a difference. I did some research and discovered that the Director of the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was a brilliant woman named Dr. Noel Bairey Merz. She was doing groundbreaking work in this field, and there were not many others around the country who were as committed or had similar expertise. Also, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is a fantastic community hospital serving the Western United States and is right in my backyard, so it made perfect sense for me to make a significant investment there. I ultimately committed $10 million and raised an additional $12 million to support the critical research and education efforts of Dr. Merz and her team. Ronald was one of the first major donors to respond to my call to action.

Ronald, has had a long-standing interest in health care research and treatment, and women’s health. He established the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital to bring the latest research, technology and treatment to heart disease.

Once it became clear that we were facing an epidemic on a national scale that is only growing given the lack of awareness among the general population and limited federal research funding, we decided to join together along with our institutions (the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital) to create the Women’s Heart Alliance, which in November 2014 launched the national awareness and advocacy campaign, Fight the Ladykiller. The campaign aims to raise awareness, encourage action and drive new research to fight heart disease. The overarching goal of the Women’s Heart Alliance is to dramatically reduce cardiovascular-related morbidity and mortality among women in the United States.

WITW: How will you measure whether WHA has been a success? Something as dramatic as a decline in CVD among women, or more awareness, or . . . ?

BS: If we can increase the number of women who are taking the critical step of getting heart checked, and being referred to treatment, as well as drive more research dollars to focus on women’s heart disease, we will have succeeded. I would like to see women’s heart disease become a well-known, well-researched, hard fought disease. We can take it to the same place that breast cancer has reached over the past several decades. In my lifetime, I hope to see women’s hearts being studied, women offered treatments specifically for them, and the differences in women’s hearts recognized. And, most importantly, I hope that we do not continue to lose the women we love from this killer. To do this we need a social movement that will close the gender gap; prevent more women from developing modifiable risk factors; and help more women control or eliminate the risk factors they do have, which is why screening and heart check events, and more research funding are so important.

WITW: I was going to use the ‘Yentl Syndrome’ idea (that women whose CVD is different from men’s aren’t taken seriously); is that still a message you want to get across? If so, is the problem women (they don’t recognize CVD symptoms/risk factors) or doctors?

BS: Directing the movie based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story of Yentl ignited my passion for gender equality and ensuring women get the same chances in life as men. Learning of the phrase “the Yentl syndrome,” coined by the director of the National Institutes of Health Bernadine Healy in 1991, helped to explain the underlying reason so many women were dying of heart disease and why despite the improvement of better treatments becoming available, men’s deaths rates were dropping faster than women’s. In the past 30 years, more women have died of heart disease than men. So, this idea is still a powerful way to convey the situation of women’s heart disease today.

From a 2012 American Heart Association National Survey led by Dr. Lori Mosca and published in 2013 in the AHA’s journal, Circulation, we know that most women (72-87 percent depending on ethnicity) agree with the statement, “I trust my healthcare provider so much that I always try to follow his/her advice.” Yet, from that same study, we also know that only 21 percent of women surveyed online reported that their doctor had ever discussed their risk of heart disease when talking with them about health. Among younger women—the demographic where cardiovascular disease is increasing rather than decreasing—only six percent reported discussing their risk with their doctors. So, there are many missed opportunities. Given the contact that women already have with the health system and the degree of trust in their health providers, we need to do much, much more to make this contact meaningful for reducing heart disease and stroke in women.

We also have to flip this challenge on its head. Too often, the focus is on blaming and shaming women. It would be easy to start saying “we have to focus on getting women to ask/talk to their health providers about their risk.” Well, why aren’t we talking about “getting healthcare providers to talk with women about their risk and to support women in making the changes necessary to reduce their risk”? When we flip the issue on its head like this, it becomes obvious that we have to work at multiple levels for this change to occur. It’s not just about naming women or doctors as the problem. There is a level of responsibility and accountability on the part of our health care providers and the health care industry, and on empowering women with the awareness so that they may advocate for themselves.

WITW: Do you have any specific plans or ideas for getting NIH to raise spending on CVD in women?

BS: Research is so critical to saving women’s lives and more funding and research is needed to change the women’s heart disease story in this country. Congress has the power to allocate more research dollars to women’s heart disease. Right now, only a small fraction ($246 million) of the National Institutes of Health budget is spent studying women’s heart disease. In comparison, $959 million is spent on women’s cancer research.

Health programs in the federal budget have experienced tremendous cuts. However, given that women’s heart disease is the number one killer of women, the federal government currently allocates an inappropriate percentage of its research dollars toward this disease. So, we must secure new levels of funding from the federal government.

Ronald Perelman and I are going to Washington, D.C., to speak to members of Congress and other officials to push for increased funding for research, for better diagnostic tools that address the physiological differences of a woman’s heart, and for successful U.S. government prevention programs such as the CDC Public Health Prevention Fund, which promotes healthy behavioral changes towards preventing heart disease and stroke.

My hope is that through our continued work and collaboration with other organizations that have been fighting this fight, we will succeed in securing more federal funding desperately needed for women’s heart disease research.

Barbra Streisand will be appearing at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 23. To purchase tickets for the event, click here.

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