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What is the number one killer of women in America?

In the past 12 months, more women—494,000, to be exact—were killed by cardiovascular disease than by any other cause.


What is the number one killer of women in America? Breast cancer? Car accidents? In the past 12 months, more women—494,000, to be exact—were killed by cardiovascular disease than by any other cause. In fact, more women will die from cardiovascular disease than from the next six causes combined.

Cardiovascular disease is a wide-ranging problem. "It's the rusting of our arteries," explains renowned surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz. "Literally, the tubes that carry nourishment to our different organs are rotting from the inside. And that's not just about dying from heart attacks and strokes. It's about kidney failure and loss of quality of life."

Even the loyal viewers of The Oprah Show have never seen Oprah quite like this! It's her heart as seen in the new 64-slice CT scanner.

Though CT scanners have been around for years, the new 64-slice CT scanner's technology actually allows doctors and patients to watch a heart beating. "If you think about it, the CAT scan takes a picture. If it's your gallbladder, it just sits there and waits for the photo shoot," Dr. Oz says. But to really capture what is happening with a heart, "You need a scanner that can take pictures so fast it can catch the heart in a beat. These new scanners can take almost 200 pictures a second so they can get your heart at so many different angles that you capture it."

Before the invention of this new CT scanner, Dr. Oz says, doctors relied on calcium scores to determine hardening of the arteries. However, this was a highly inexact science. "What makes this technology so cool," Dr. Oz says, "is you can actually go beyond calcium which is just a symptom."

Curious about the state of her heart, Oprah decided to get one of these heart scans. What does Dr. Andrew Rosenson, who performed her scan, think of Oprah's heart?

"Your heart is perfect," Dr. Andy says. "You have the heart of a 19-year-old."

Here is an example of a heart with constricted arteries. "Just a trickle of blood is getting through this blockage," Dr. Oz says.

"The heart that's dependent on that blood supply is dying. It may be dying slowly or quickly," Dr. Oz says. "The first time they know they're having a heart problem is when they're having the big one."

You shouldn't just be worried about your arteries just to avoid "the big one"…a massive heart attack. "It's intertwined," Dr. Oz explains. "By the time you have blockages of the arteries of the heart, you also have blockages in your brain, your kidneys and all the other organs. The whole package comes together."

This probably isn't what singer Hank Williams had in mind, but this is a cheating heart.

"This huge vessel has a fistula. It pretends it's pumping blood," Dr. Oz says. "The reason this vessel is so large and serpentine is that it's actually dumping blood into the heart without giving it the nourishment that it needs. Sometimes kids and young adults have this problem, and it can cause chest pain."

This heart is an example of a condition called collateral supply, which, Dr. Oz says, is very common in athletes. In this heart, an artery was blocked off and in order to successfully deliver blood over to another part of the heart, it created an entirely new blood vessel. "The heart's wonderful," Dr. Oz says. "I'm so happy I study it every day because it allows us to figure out how adaptive the human body is. This heart found a way of keeping itself alive by creating a whole new collateral blood vessel to get there."

After Oprah got her heart scan, Gayle decided it was time to get her heart checked out, too. However, Gayle was wary because of a family history of heart problems.

"Both of my parents died of heart disease," Gayle says. "My mom was 61 and my dad was 47 [when they died]. And I'm 50, so it's weird to me that I've already outlived my father. I was very, very nervous."

How does Gayle's heart look? "Gayle has very sexy arteries," Dr. Jill Jacobs, the radiologist who performed Gayle's test, jokes.

Dr. Jacobs explains that Gayle has very tiny amounts of small plaque, but that they are not much of a threat. "I'm very happy that everything looks good," Dr. Jacobs says.

It's normal to feel nervous, but not okay to forgo this vital checkup. "Don't be one of those crazy people who doesn't want the information," Oprah says.

"It's about empowerment," Dr. Oz agrees. "The whole process [is about] getting people to understand what's happening inside of them. But I've got one word of caution. As beautiful as the scan is, remember it's a snapshot. It's telling you what's happening today in your life."

Dr. Oz says that he often sees people who, when they're told they have plaque in their hearts, become fixated with eliminating all of it. That's not necessarily the best course of action to take. "If you've got a blood ventricle with 20 percent plaque in it, 50 percent plaque in it, that's still fine. You can get plenty of blood through there. It's when that plaque ruptures or completely closes the vessel [that it becomes a problem]," he says.

In actuality, plaque is a valuable commodity in your body. "The reason we put calcium in our plaque is to stabilize it," Dr. Oz says. "The body wants to prevent the plaque from rupturing and blowing out so it puts some cement in it."

Dr. Oz compares plaque to plaster used to fix a hole in a wall. "You've got high quality cholesterol, that's HDL cholesterol. You get that from the good foods and it makes a nice beautiful repair. You've got cheap-o stuff—lousy cholesterol, LDL cholesterol—that makes an irregular, ratty covering on it. And then you inflame [the repair using LDL cholesterol] by eating fried foods or processed foods, so it begins to crack. What happens when you crack your skin? You form a scab on it. The scab blows up and closes off your blood vessel."

Dr. Oz says that stress, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and other risk factors increase the likelihood of rupturing these "scabs."

Here is one of the most disturbing, starkest statistics you'll read: one out of two women will die of cardiovascular disease.

"It's not just the heart," Dr. Oz explains. "You rust the arteries to the brain and the kidney. So that statistic means one of the two of you, odds are, will die of kidney failure, stroke or heart attack. There's a common cause: our modern lifestyle."

But there's always hope for turning things around. Dr. Oz has a simple suggestion. "Exercise to build heart health. What does that mean? That means we have to break a sweat 60 minutes a week. That's not a lot to ask."

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