THURSDAY, Feb. 10, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Actress Denise Richards wowed the crowd in scarlet, while Today show host Ann Curry hit the catwalk in fire-engine red. Oprah Winfrey's best-friend-forever, talk show host Gayle King, sashayed in a cherry Donna Karan number, while hip-hop star Eve rocked out in crimson.
Taking part Wednesday night in the annual Red Dress Collection fashion show in New York City, each of these stars (and more) were on a mission: To get the word out that heart disease is the leading killer of women, and that it can be prevented.
"It's so important to bring awareness to whoever we can on this," said soul legend Patti LaBelle, 66, who dazzled in a flowing Zang Toi gown. The music diva has had a long and public struggle with diabetes, and acknowledged that she has a heart murmur that causes her some worry. "I think sometimes that I'm exhausted from my shows, but it could be from not knowing what's up with my ticker," she said. Her message to other women: "Make sure you take care of yourself and get checkups."
The celebrity-studded show -- the kickoff to this month's New York Fashion Week -- is the annual centerpiece of The Heart Truth campaign, an effort to spread awareness of heart disease among women, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Over the past few years, the Red Dress symbol has become to heart disease what the pink ribbon is to breast cancer awareness, one expert said.
"It's a powerful symbol -- every time you see someone wearing a red dress it reminds everyone that they should take a check of their heart. The dress inspires movement, it empowers women to take charge of their heart health," said Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women campaign, which, like The Heart Truth campaign, works to raise awareness of women's cardiovascular health.
For decades, Mieres said, too many American women considered cardiovascular disease a "man's illness." But that's far from the truth.
"Heart disease claims the life of one in three American women, and it's ahead of any of the other causes of death, including breast cancer and all cancers combined," said Mieres, a cardiologist at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Manhasset, N.Y. Since 1984, more women have died each year from heart disease than men, she said, and with rising obesity rates heart trouble is now hitting women at a younger age than ever before.
"As the waistlines of women in the United States have increased, heart disease, instead of occurring in the menopause years, has been pushed back and we're now seeing it in women in their 30s and 40s," Mieres said. "And unfortunately in that age group the first sign of heart disease can be sudden death."
Those are sobering facts until you realize that "80 percent of heart disease can be prevented," she said. And prevention needn't be difficult: 10 to 30 minutes of exercise a day, avoiding smoking, eating healthy (more fruits and vegetables, less fat), getting regular checkups to know your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, and informing your doctor of any family history is all it takes, Mieres said.
Family history was a key motivator for another star gracing the catwalk on Wednesday night.
"For me [heart health] is huge -- my father died of a heart attack and my mom had a stroke, and I feel that it's so important," said Dallas star Linda Gray, 70, wearing a Pamella Roland gown. "Tonight, it's all about education -- let's find out how we can take care of that beautiful heart that we all have. An event like this really makes people pay attention."
Still, more work needs to be done. According to The Heart Truth campaign, nearly half of women still don't know that heart disease is their number one killer, and only 16 percent describe heart disease as "their greatest health threat."
Awareness can quickly lead to action, however. According to the campaign, as women begin to realize the true danger posed to them by heart disease, their rates of both physical activity and weight loss tend to rise.
"For years, I think women thought that breast cancer was the number one disease," said Gray, "but it's shocking to find out that heart disease is so huge." The time has come, she said, for women "to pay attention" to the heart truth.
Find out more at The Heart Truth.