Interview: Barbra Streisand’s Change of Heart
January 05, 2011, 4:00am

What the famous singer, actor, and director is doing to change the state of women’s heart health.

WebMD the Magazine – Feature.
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

On screen, Barbra Streisand’s newest role as therapist Rozalin Focker (seen in Little Fockers, which opened in late December 2010) alongside Robert DeNiro, Ben Stiller, and Dustin Hoffman, shows just how in tune the legendary performer is with matters of the heart.

But in real life, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor, director, and singer takes her commitment to a whole new level with her highly public role helping to raise funds for research at Cedars-Sinai’s Women’s Heart Center in Los Angeles. Recently, the eight-time Grammy Award winner wrote out these answers in response to WebMD’s questions about why she’s pulling out all the stops to transform women’s cardiac health.

Q: Of all the important health issues to champion, what inspired you to advocate for women’s heart health?
A: I have always been an advocate of women’s issues working with my foundation, and I have been outspoken on issues of gender inequality throughout my career. When I discovered that gender inequality still exists in the medical sciences when it comes to research and treatment of heart disease, I was stunned. Given that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in our country, more than all cancers combined, I knew I had to get involved to make a difference.

Q: How are you personally helping transform women’s heart health?
A: I have committed to raise $10 million, and I will match up to $5 million of it. These funds will be dedicated for research, treatment, and education on women’s
heart health. In addition to raising money, it’s also imperative to raise awareness about this issue.

To really engage people around the country, we launched an Internet fundraising campaign with a company called Crowdrise, a new online fundraising community that unites people to raise money and volunteers for important causes. I have never done anything like this before, but we have asked people to donate whatever they can — $10, $20, $50 — to The outpouring of generosity has been wonderful and inspiring to see. We still have a lot of money left to raise, but the early response has been very positive.

Q: Why did you choose to work with Cedars-Sinai’s heart center?
A: Although there are other institutions around the country doing gender-specific work in the area of heart disease, the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai is among the few places leading the way in this effort. Also, the center is led by the brilliant and accomplished C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, who has received numerous awards recognizing her as one of the field’s leading experts on preventive cardiology, women’s heart disease, and mental stress.

It made sense for me to focus my time and resources at Cedars given that this work was being conducted right in my own backyard at one of the premier hospitals in the country. And the research outcomes conducted by Dr. Merz and her team will help women all over the world.

Q: Do you have a personal connection to a woman with heart disease?
A: I have had both close friends and family members impacted by heart disease. Sadly, I think most people have had someone in their lives who has suffered a heart attack and/or has all the risk factors for cardio-vascular disease.

Q: What’s the No. 1 thing you wish women knew about heart health?
A: I want women to know that their hearts are physiologically different from men’s and that heart disease in women doesn’t always present the same as heart disease in men. Women need — and deserve — heart care specific to female hearts. Women with heart problems need cardiovascular screening, risk assessment, and diagnostic testing designed for women. Otherwise, they can be misdiagnosed, which could lead to disastrous consequences.

Q: How is heart disease different in women than in men?
A: Women having a heart attack don’t always experience what men usually do — chest pain associated with exertion. Instead, they may feel chest pressure, indigestion, shortness of breath, or fatigue. For these reasons, the need for gender-specific treatment is obvious and urgent.

Q: In your opinion, why are more women developing heart disease?
A: Today, more women are taking on the stresses of juggling household demands, of being wife, mother, and breadwinner. These modern-day strains add to higher blood pressure, lack of physical activity, quick and unhealthy food choices, and weight gain — all major contributors to heart disease.

In addition, even though women have broken through some of the hardest glass ceilings, for decades, most heart disease research was done on men.

So, despite the best intentions of the medical community, women with heart disease have often been diagnosed and treated based on research outcomes done mostly on male patients.

Unfortunately, those approaches don’t always work for women. And women need to be better educated about recognizing the risk factors for heart disease and how to prevent it. They need to take control of their own heart health by making it a priority to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, eat heart-healthy foods, and reduce stress. Gender-specific heart care and lifestyle changes have the potential to decrease the number of women afflicted with this life-threatening disease.

Q: How would you most like to see women’s cardiovascular care change over the next 10 years?
A: I want to see women-centric cardiovascular health care, education, and research become the norm rather than the exception. We need to continue to explore women’s heart disease from every angle, looking at risk factors and effective treatments across predetermined biological tendencies, demographics, and lifestyle choices. And we need to concentrate our research efforts where they’ll have the most impact — less invasive approaches to early detection and monitoring, advancements in treating small artery dysfunction, identification of gender-specific genes and proteins that may influence the risk of heart disease, clinical trials of promising new drugs, and lifestyle choices that can have a positive impact.

Through my association with Cedars-Sinai’s Women’s Heart Center, I’ve come to know what needs to be done. They’re doing it, and I’m supporting them as they shape the future of women’s heart care through their innovative work. If you are interested in getting involved and learning more, please visit:

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