Image: Barbra Streisand
Russell James
Barbra Streisand says more research needs to be done on heart disease in women.
NBC News
updated 11/22/2011 1:04:25 AM ET 2011-11-22T06:04:25

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with multiple Grammy and Academy Award winner Barbra Streisand about her participation with Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors.

Each year, Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors holds a gala honoring philanthropic heroes. This year they honored Streisand for her community outreach work and support of Cedars- Sinai. Proceeds from the gala benefit the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute.

Q: How did you get involved with this organization and what is your role?

Streisand: I was always fascinated with gender and equality. When I found out certain facts about women and heart disease I was shocked to find out that heart disease is the leading (cause of) death for women in the United States, actually the world. I was just asking a friend of mine how many women died of breast cancer last year and it was 39,500 but heart disease kills nearly 500,000 women in the United States alone each year and that is more than all cancers combined.

It’s pretty staggering to find that out. It kills more women than men now; for many years, for decades, heart disease was thought of as a “man’s disease” and now it kills more women than men. For every woman that dies from breast cancer 10 will die from heart disease. I couldn’t believe that these kinds of statistics exist. Yet so much of the research over the last 50 years has been done by men on men to develop the protocols and diagnostics by which both men and women are treated for heart disease.  And women have a different physiology than men.

It’s totally unfair to be treated in terms of a man. As a matter of fact, there is a thing called the “Yentl Syndrome." There are two studies in the New England journal of medicine about sex bias in coronary heart disease. The later study was quoted as saying “an illustration of the Yentl system, once she showed that she was just like a man by having a severe coronary heart disease then she was treated as a man would be.”

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But they have found out that women have a different physiology. Of course they know that women have a different physical frame and so forth but it has to do with macro vascular and micro vascular philology, meaning that it’s not just enough to look at the large arteries because women seem to have these smaller arteries, capillaries that may contribute to heart disease.

Q: Why is this cause so important to you?

Streisand: I was always fascinated by inequality, working for the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). My family actually mostly dies of heart disease which is sad to think about. Many years ago I started a professorship chair at UCLA in the name of my father. Not that he had heart disease; he actually died of a brain aneurysm because of a car accident. But I think both of my grandparents died of heart disease and I thought it was totally unfair ... as a matter of fact I just found out that last year alone $1.7 billion was raised for breast cancer and heart disease doesn’t seem to get the same recognition; maybe it’s not marketed right or whatever but it just seems so unfair.

Q: In general why is it important for celebrities to support charitable causes? 

Streisand: Because we have a stage, a way to be heard. Before my honor at Cedars Sinai, I’m going to do a piece for a Larry King special on heart disease. How do they say it? “To whom much is given much is expected.” I think it’s important for everyone to give back whether you’re a celebrity or not. It’s important for all of us to pitch in and help.

Celebrities help bring a level of awareness to an issue or a cause which is extremely helpful. I just hope through my involvement with woman’s heart disease that more and more women become more aware of the statistics and get educated and are empowered to take control of their own lives and their own health. I’m trying to do that through the woman’s heart center and my cardiovascular research and education program.

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Q: Is there anything else you would like to add in closing?

Streisand: Just to say that people who have lost or value the women in their lives, their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters, and with ‘their’ small donations we could change so much about women’s lives. Aren’t you shocked by these statistics? Heart disease kills more women than all cancers combined.

Q: I had no idea actually.

Streisand: I know! Nobody seems to know this. Forty-two percent of women die within a year after their first heart attack compared with 24 percent of men. There’s very interesting research being done by using female stem cells, it’s a big exciting area and we need to invest in it. I think it’s just essential for the women of this world. 

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