The TV personality and heart disease survivor hopes sharing her journey will empower other women to take control of their heart health.
In 2003, Star Jones decided to take control of her weight and health by undergoing weight loss surgery. Over the next two years, she went on to lose 160 pounds.
“I was feeling really good. I was eating correctly and exercising regularly and doing all the things I was supposed to,” Jones told Healthline.
So, it took her by surprise when she started feeling shortness of breath, lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, and intense heart palpitations in 2010.
“I knew something was wrong so I went to my cardiologist. After two days of testing, I learned that I had an aortic valve malfunction,” said Jones. “If I didn’t move quickly it would ultimately need to be replaced, and if it could not be replaced, I’d ultimately need a heart transplant.”
Jones decided to have preemptive open-heart surgery to stave off a cardiac event.
“I took control of my own health. I was my own advocate. I was scared out of my mind, too,” she said. “Six days after open-heart surgery, I walked out of the hospital fully recovered except that I needed to get my life back, so for three months I did intense cardio-rehab.”
During recovery, Jones felt the urge to spread the word about heart health.
“I should have been aware [of my risks]. However, I was not aware that heart disease is the number one killer of all Americans and number one killer of African Americans and number one killer of women,” she said. “I should have been on notice because I’m three for three.”
Heart disease also runs in her family on her mother’s side, making Jones a fifth-generation heart disease survivor. The fact that she was obese for the majority of her adult life and that she lived a sedentary lifestyle also put her at risk.
“I really and truly was the walking epitome of heart disease without even knowing about it,” Jones said.
Jones teamed up with the American Heart Association and its Go Red for Women movement in 2011 to share her story and to spread awareness about heart disease.
“I was one of the millions of women who thought heart disease was an old white man’s disease,” she said.
The American Heart Association reports that cardiovascular diseases kill one woman about every 80 seconds, yet 80 percent of cardiovascular diseases can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes.
“When it happened to me, I called the American Heart Association almost right out of the hospital to say there is a new face of heart disease and I want to share what I have learned,” said Jones. “This is my life’s work and purpose in life, to really push forward the mission of eradicating cardiovascular disease and stroke in our country.”
Jones stresses prevention, which starts with “Knowing Your Numbers” to help understand your risk for heart disease.
The American Heart Association says the five key personal health numbers you want to know are total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index.
“Knowing these will help you put a game plan in place with your doctor,” Jones said. “While 1 in  women will die from breast cancer, 1 in 3 women, if we don’t make changes, will die from heart disease.”
She added, “You know you’re supposed to have a mammogram, but did you know you’re supposed to have your blood pressure checked? Did you know you’re supposed to know your cholesterol number? Did you know you’re supposed to know your blood sugar level? Those kinds of things will save your life.”
Getting women to realize the importance of these numbers is key, says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and medical expert for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement.
“This is the 15th year of the Go Red for Women initiative. When we started about 20 percent of women were aware of heart disease and now we’re at 50 to 60 percent,” Steinbaum told Healthline. “Many women do not believe that heart disease is a health threat. We need to get [every] woman to understand that she needs to think about her heart. The sooner we can get prevention and treatment, [the sooner it] can make an impact about what’s going to happen to us in the future.”
While an internist or primary care doctor can determine your total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index, Steinbaum says understanding your total risk may require a specialist.
For instance, if you had gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, or hypertension while pregnant, your risk of heart disease after pregnancy and throughout your life increases.
“This year, every woman needs to understand not just those [five] numbers, but also your whole life. What is your family history and what has happened to you during pregnancy? Knowing your whole story can drive you to go to someone who is really interested in heart disease and prevention,” Steinbaum said.
If you don’t have access to care or don’t want to wait to see your doctor, CVS Health is offering free heart health screenings every Thursday throughout February at their MinuteClinic locations throughout the nation.
“Part of empowering yourself is advocating for yourself and your health and taking charge of your own health,” Steinbaum said. “I’m hoping this year — our 15th year of Go Red for Women — is the year that women really take charge of their heart health.”
“Women are used to being the caregivers of the world. It’s time for us to take care of ourselves,” she said.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.