The Gift of a Generation: Women's Heart Disease Risk Dropping

Janice Miles, left, worries that she will inherit her mother Rose Orrs, right, hear disease.

Today would have been Olivia Passanando's birthday. She died from congestive heart failure in 1988 at the age of 69.

Her daughter, Patty Norris, is 61 years old. Norris lives each day with the reality that she, too, has the disease that takes the lives of 450,000 American women each year -- nearly one woman every minute.

"It was very difficult for me to accept that I had heart disease, knowing the fact that my mother died from a heart problem," she said. "It's been extremely hard. It's still extremely hard."

Watch World News with Diane Sawyer tonight on ABC for more on this story. Check local listings for time.

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Indeed, as they age, some women worry that they'll inherit their mother's weak eyes or their father's bad back, but for women with cardiovascular disease in the family, the most fearsome thing can be having "your mother's heart."

For 56-year-old Janice Miles, this meant that even though she did "all the right things" -- healthy eating, regular exercise, keeping blood pressure low -- she was still at high risk for heart disease, as she found out this fall.

She noticed she was having breathing problems, chest discomfort and some pain going down her arm when she was exercising.

Though both her parents had early heart attacks in their 50s, Miles still thought her symptoms were most likely due to her asthma. But after a month, she went to a cardiologist anyway.

As it turned out, she had a 100 percent blockage in "the most important artery of the heart" and needed surgery to put in a stent, said Dr. John Schindler, Miles' cardiologist and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"I've always been so health-conscious -- I'm a little stymied that I still have [heart disease]. Now I see that there is no getting away from it when it's in your genetics," Miles says.

Fortunately, patients and doctors are more aware today of the risks cardiovascular disease can pose for women than in the days when her mother had a heart attack.

"Twenty years ago, a lot of women were told that they were under stress or had other reasons to have the types of symptoms they were complaining about when indeed, [heart disease] was just being overlooked," Schindler says.

"Education has been critically important over the years," he adds. "The more we get this information out there, the better."

In honor of February's national heart awareness month, the American Heart Association is sponsoring a "Go Red for Women" campaign Friday to celebrate the progress that's been made, and increase efforts to prevent heart disease in women.

Heart Disease in Women -- Then and Now

"Even up to the 1990s, if you asked women what they thought they'd die from, they'd say breast cancer," says Dr. Paula Miller, director of women's heart program and director of cardiac rehabilitation at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

But cardiovascular disease was becoming the number one killer for women, killing nearly 100,000 more women than men each year, says Miller.

"Out of all deaths in women, one in 30 is from breast cancer, whereas one in six is from cardiovascular disease," Schindler says.

It has been an uphill battle to raise awareness of heart disease in women, cardiologists say.

"Textbooks in the 60s and 70s didn't even mention heart disease in women -- weren't really educating women that the risks were there."

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