Volunteer spotlight: Leading cardiologist empowers generations of women to advocate for heart health

Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum

Growing up in a family of doctors, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, can’t remember a day without thinking of patients, especially with her grandfather’s practice attached to his house, where she was a regular visitor. Rather than follow her father into oncology, Steinbaum decided that she would focus on helping women’s hearts through preventive care. 

Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist in New York and longtime volunteer expert for the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Go Red for Women movement, encourages women to advocate for themselves and “live from the heart,” by paying attention to heart health and overall wellness.

“We know ourselves and how we feel better than anyone else,” she said. “If you don’t feel well, and you’re not getting answers, then you have to find another doctor. Don’t give up getting help.”

Advocating for women is a passion point for Steinbaum, who while conducting research early in her career, heard from countless women about how their symptoms – including shortness of breath, nausea and fatigue – were dismissed as anxiety or stress, when in fact they were warning signs of a heart attack. 

“It felt very personal,” she said. “It was a really a disparity in care and a dismissal of who these women were. It was intolerable to me then and it’s intolerable to me now.”

Steinbaum became determined to raise awareness about women’s heart health just about the same time the Go Red for Women movement launched in 2004.

Fifteen years later, Steinbaum continues to advocate for women’s health. She credits the movement for raising public awareness about heart disease and stroke, which is the leading cause of death from women. 

Before Go Red for Women, “women really thought of themselves in terms of breast health and gynecological health and they never thought about their heart,” Steinbaum said. 

Studies show women having heart attacks wait more than 30% longer than men from the moment they begin experiencing symptoms to the time they arrive at a hospital and once there, experience a 20% longer wait time than men . 

Steinbaum urges women to say, “I am having a heart attack,” as they seek help at the ER. “If they say things like ‘I’m short of breath’ or ‘I’m nauseous,’ they may not be heard or get the help they need,” she said. “From the beginning of my career, my passion has been to help empower women with the information they need to advocate for themselves and get the help they need.”

Steinbaum said tools such as AHA’s Life’s Essential 8, which focus on lifestyle changes to improve heart health, are important for women, because even modest changes can lower risk by as much as 80 %. 

As awareness increases around women’s risk for heart disease, Steinbaum says additional attention is needed to understand the risks that come with diabetes, which is considered a major risk factor for heart disease. “Controlling diabetes through diet and exercise is one of the most critical things you can do because those are the cornerstones for managing it,” she said. 

Steinbaum has also been working with groups studying links between heart disease and Alzheimer’s, which share many risk factors. “We need to learn what is in our control and what we can do to prevent it,” she said. “If we take care of our hearts, we’re going to take care of our brains too.”