Zuleyma Santos is a part of the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Real Women Class of 2022, who are national volunteers selected to represent a diverse sisterhood of survivors, who actively, urgently and passionately champion the Go Red for Women movement. Often the surprising faces of cardiovascular disease, the Real Women share their powerful survivor stories to raise awareness of heart disease and stroke in women and inspire others to take charge of their own health and mental well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years has caused many people to delay their health appointments and become less active. That can include failing to exercise and — with a stay-at-home mandate to work from home — eating more. 

As a result, many have gained weight and haven’t stayed on top of health conditions or had tests that can detect potential health problems.   

Zuleyma Santos, a mother of two, represents survivors who champion the Go Red for Women movement. She shares her story to inspires others.

Heart disease has remained the leading health threat during the pandemic, according to the American Heart Association, with more people reporting lower physical and emotional wellness.

Many people have delayed or avoided going to the hospital. Unhealthy use of alcohol and other substances has also been on the rise. All of these things can increase the risk of heart disease.

In some cases, it was not only patients but healthcare providers who delayed nonelective surgeries and medical appointments to prevent increased exposure to those in their care, but also to healthcare workers. 

Now that COVID-19 mask mandates and other restrictions are beginning to ease, people are encouraged to get back on track, especially for heart care. 

“The last two years have taken a real toll,” said American Heart Association volunteer expert Vivian Mo, MD, and chief medical officer for USC Care Medical Group.

“People are tired, feeling like they have lost their rhythm. We know the impact that can have on one’s health and ability to live a full life, so we’re encouraging people to reclaim their physical and mental well-being by creating healthy habits that work best for their life.”

This year marks the 58th American Heart Month and the American Heart Association is urging people all over the country to “reclaim their rhythm.”

Since 1964 the month of February has been designated as American Heart Month. It’s the goal of the American Heart Association this month, in particular, to get the public to pay special attention to the heart — to be aware of prevention and treating heart disease.

Earlier this month, the pylons at the Los Angeles International Airport, the Kilroy Star in Long Beach and the Abbott building in Sylmar were illuminated red for National Wear Red Day.

It’s a Myth that Heart Disease is a Man’s Disease

Heart disease is also known as cardiovascular disease. It is not only the leading cause of death in the nation but — still unknown to most — the No. 1 killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths. That’s more than all types of cancer combined.

Each year since 1984, more women have died from heart disease than men and women of color face the biggest burden for risk.

Panorama City resident Zuleyma Santos now knows all too well that women can have heart disease. She has been in and out of the hospital for the past two years. In 2019, she was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy — an uncommon form of heart failure that happens during the last month of pregnancy or up to five months after giving birth.

The mother of two, Santos — who lost her husband to cancer last March — needs a new heart and is undergoing treatment to prepare her body for a heart transplant.

Santos is now part of a diverse sisterhood of survivors who champion the Go Red for Women movement for the American Heart Association. They share their stories to help raise awareness.

With support, she remains optimistic.

“Having gone through so many challenges on top of the pandemic, I’ve learned to live each day and not stress about yesterday,” Santos said. “I also learned the importance of accepting and relying on a good support system to get through each day.”

Some of the ways Santos has been reclaiming her health is by doing daily squats in the morning, and playing and dancing with her young kids every day.

“One thing that my late husband and I used to do a lot was cook together,” Santos said. “I stopped for a long time, because I did not have the energy while in recovery. But now I try to cook at home more, and stay away from too much salt and oils or fats in our food.

“I like making simple meals with less but healthy ingredients,” she said.

It’s recommended that “caring for yourself” is the best way to counter the affect of the long pandemic and heavy toll on your health. 

Poverty Can Keep People From Seeking Care

For people of color, including Latinos and African Americans, there are many risk factors for heart disease that can be triggered by diabetes, hypertension and obesity that can be prevalent in underserved communities.

Women in these communities are at particular risk. In the Latino community, especially among the poorest segment of the population, there may be a lack of self care with women putting their households first and caring for others.

For both men and women in Latino communities, it may be a bigger priority to work to keep food on the table rather than to seek preventive care. Poverty, the lack of health insurance, and a lack of education or information can cause high blood pressure to go undetected and therefore is untreated.   

African Americans have the highest rate of heart disease in the United States with 47 percent of people affected. It’s estimated by 2035, that figure could rise to 50 percent.  

Heart Disease Is Leading Cause of Death

The proclamation for American Heart Month was first made by President Lyndon B. Johnson to bring attention to what is one of the nation’s leading causes of death. Since then, US presidents have continued to honor the federally designated event this month.

Unfortunately, President Johnson was later among the millions of people in the country who’ve had heart attacks and died.

It’s all too common for many people to go undiagnosed with heart disease until they’ve had a heart attack, angina, stroke or heart failure. Cardiovascular disease includes a number of serious health conditions that include heart attacks, stroke, heart failure, arrhythmia and more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that one person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease, and about 659,000 die in the US from heart disease each year.

It’s a goal during American Heart Month to get all of us to pay special attention to our heart — to be aware of prevention and treating heart disease.