Karen Yontz Center Logo

1900s: Fact vs. Fashion

Women's clothing reflected the Victorian look with heavy tight-waisted dresses. The 20th century made small waists a fashion statement. It wasn't until the 21st century that we learned that they were also a measure of health. People who carry their extra body weight in the abdominal region, "apple-shaped," have a greater health risk than those who carry fat primarily in the hips and thighs, "pear-shaped."

The average life expectancy for an American woman was 48.3 years.

In 1908, heart disease officially became the #1 killer of women in the U.S. &mdash and it has remained that way ever since.

By 1910, health information became readily available through the media via six women's magazines, including McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Women's Home Companion.

1910s: Fighting Against Heart Disease

1914 The Amateur Athletic Union in the United States allowed women to register for swimming events for the first time. Physical activity reduces the risk of death from coronary heart disease (CHD) and developing high blood pressure (a risk for CHD), colon cancer, and diabetes.

The recommended amount of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week is associated with a 30%-50% reduction in coronary heart disease risk in women.

1920s: A Woman's Right to Be Healthy

The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote. The tobacco companies used the image of the liberated suffragette to market cigarettes to women and appeal to women’s concerns about weight control to sell their products. This image continued through the end of the century.

In the 1920s, messages geared toward women such as "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," attempted to establish an association between cigarettes and slimness, or cigarettes and weight control. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in women. Smoking is a major cause of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) in women. Risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked and the duration. Quitting reduces the excess risk of CHD no matter what age women stop, and is substantially reduced after 1 to 2 years.

1930s: Exploring New Health Frontiers

Women's Health Activism gave rise to two movements:

1. The formation of government offices and policies to expand maternal and child health services.

2. Birth control advocates overturned restrictions on the distribution of birth control information and devices.

1940s: The War Against Weight

1948 marked the inception of the Framingham Heart Study. This first major cardiovascular study to include women involved 60 years of research and three generations of participants. It led to revolutionary changes in the way we view, treat and prevent cardiovascular disease. This study coined the phrase "risk factors." Risk factors are conditions or habits — including cholesterol levels, diet, lifestyle, diabetes, hypertension, smoking and exercise — that make a person more likely to develop a disease.

McCall's magazine urged women to "... stay slim for healthy beauty and morale ... Go slow on fats and sweets and take exercise." Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle offers the greatest potential for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

1950s: Tuning In to Heart Health

The baby boom peaked in 1957 and the "suburbs" took hold. Most families ate dinner together at home and after dinner watched television together.

Data suggests sedentary behavior, such as time spent watching TV, increases the risk of obesity and diabetes. Watching TV has lower energy expenditure than other sedentary behaviors, such as reading, writing or driving. Today, the average American spends approximately 4 hours per day watching TV.

1960s: NOW is the Time for Heart Health

1966 The National Organization for Women (NOW) formed. The feminist movement called into question female fashion stereotypes. This self-health movement encouraged women to take control of their bodies for the reason of improved health.

1968 The first heart transplant in Milwaukee, WI is performed on Mrs. Elizabeth Annick of West Allis at St. Luke's Hospital.

1970s: Heart Disease Does Not Discriminate

1972 Title IX of the Education Amendment prohibited sex discrimination in educational programs that received federal support, including athletic programs. An increasing number of women began to participate in sports and regular exercise. Fitness centers and group aerobic classes became popular among women. Adult women returned to the locker room for the first time since high school.

1974 First Lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her openness raised breast cancer awareness. Many women still identify breast cancer as their greatest health risk when, in fact, 1 in 30 women will die of breast cancer, whereas 1 in 3 women will die from cardiovascular disease.

1976 the Framingham Heart Study found that menopause increases a woman's risk of heart disease.

Americans were eating 40% of their meals away from home.

1980s: A New Era In Heart Care

The popularity of the athletic body prevailed (examples of these include Madonna, Jane Fonda, and Suzanne Somers). Despite the popularity of the athletic body type, the prevailing look among top fashion models remained ultra-thin and increasingly anorexic. This unrealistic norm contributed to the high rate of self-consciousness among women and dissatisfaction with their bodies. It led to an increase in eating disorders and fueled a huge dietary industry.

1990s: Time to Stress Heart Health

A major landmark study showed that 50% of the actual causes of death in the U.S. were behavior driven: smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, alcohol abuse, etc.

By the late 1990s, 46% of the labor force was female. This dual role of homemaker and breadwinner saw a decrease in women’s leisure time and an increase in stress.

To address the issue of many working women who lost jobs or were forced to quit because of pregnancy or caring for a sick loved one, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993. This Act allows women and men to take up to three months off in a 12-month period to care for a family matter without losing their jobs.

2000s: Pumped Up About Heart Health

The term "metabolic syndrome" was coined. Metabolic syndrome was identified as a cluster of abnormalities that increases one’s risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The risk of heart attack or death is 78% higher for people with metabolic syndrome than those who do not have this combination of risk factors.

The Women’s Health Initiative Study found that hormone replacement therapy — once believed to ward off heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer, while improving women’s quality of life — actually posed a serious risk for heart attack and stroke with long-term use. While questions remain, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that hormone replacement therapy be used at the lowest dose for the shortest period of time to achieve relief from menopausal symptoms.

Other Century Observations: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By the end of the century, the average woman could look forward to living about 80 years. While much changed in women’s health during the century, one very important factor did not: the major causes of death and disease remained largely preventable. But in spite of the many advances made in women’s health, unhealthy personal behaviors such as smoking, poor nutrition, and sedentary living increased, resulting in one-half of the adult female population being overweight.