Mississippi native Jan Zimmerman has long since put down deep roots in Arkansas, and none quite as deep as those in the American Heart Association of Arkansas. Zimmerman is a longtime volunteer and member of The Circle of Red, a group leading the way for the AHA's Go Red for Women initiative encouraging women to take charge of their heart health.

We sat down with Zimmerman ahead of the 15th annual Go Red for Women Luncheon to find out why the AHA is sounding the alarm for women across the country.

The AHA holds a special place for you. Can you tell us where that comes from?

I committed to fighting heart disease at an early age. I was raised by my grandparents and my grandfather had his first heart attack as a young man in his 40s. He'd started smoking to make himself a man in eighth grade, which caused all kinds of health issues. His next heart attack, I remember visiting him in the hospital where they enclosed him in a tent and pumped in oxygen, but as soon as he was feeling better they let him go out back and smoke.

He had his third, fatal heart attack at 63 and it just broke my heart. At that point, information was starting to come out about heart disease and hypertension, but it wasn't directed at women. It was only talked about for men.

Heart disease is now the leading cause of death for females. There are more heart disease deaths than all kinds of cancer put together and we still don't hear much about it. One in three women will have some sort of cardiovascular incident in their lives. The numbers are staggering. The American Heart Association has a big job.

As a woman with heart disease in your family, how does the Go Red message impact you?

Not only did heart disease kill my grandfather, but my biological mother had a stroke and so did her brother. Knowing there is so much of it in my family has really made me think about early intervention. I started seeing a cardiologist when I turned 50, I've gone for stress tests every two years and had EKGs. I'm also very cognizant of what I eat. That is something I can take control of.

But what I found true for most women I know, we just self-medicate because we're too busy to stop and get it checked out. If we have heartburn, we take some Tums. Night sweats? That's just menopause. So many of the symptoms are misleading like heartburn, night sweats or fatigue. It's no wonder we're fatigued. We're running businesses, working, raising families, trying to have social lives and be committed to our communities. Yes, we're tired. And yet women are constantly misdiagnosed. We can have heart attacks and still be misdiagnosed.

Why is this message so important for Arkansans to hear?

We Southerners like our fried foods and we don't always like to exercise. There are plenty of ways to be active in Arkansas. You don't have to be a member of a club, you don't have to have a trainer. You can walk any place you'd like to walk, and you can make good choices about your meals.

No one loves Cherry Coke more than I do, but can I have it all day, everyday? No. Can I have a bag of potato chips every day just because I've had a hard day? No.

I think sometimes we're our own worst enemies when it comes to our health. But now that we have this information, we need to share it and we need to save ourselves.

What would you say to women who don't have this on their radar?

If heart disease is not on your radar as a woman, it needs to be. If you want to have a long life expectancy, if you want to see your children and grandchildren grow up, you'd better tune in to the statistics. One in three. Line up the women in your family and your friends and count them out. It's pretty sobering.

The thing about heart disease is that it doesn't pick on any one ethnicity, one gender, one size. We're all at risk. Plaque buildup, bad diet, family history — it takes no prisoners. But the good news is that technology has made such a difference in how we treat these things, and 80% of heart issues can be avoided with early intervention.

This year's Go Red Luncheon serves as somewhat of a passing of the torch in philanthropy. Why is that important and what does it represent for the future of the AHA?

In my community, I care about my family, my friends, my state and moving us forward. People choose to get involved with their communities in different ways in different seasons of life. I see that in every organization that I'm a part of. Now we're all starting to look to our sons and daughters to see how they can contribute. To keep any organization healthy, you need to have members of all ages and backgrounds; everyone is bringing something different to the table.

I've been amazed by the younger chairman who are stepping up all over town. This year, the women heading up the Go Red Luncheon — Sharon Vogelpohl, Kristen Nicholson and Whitney Burgess — have such fresh ideas and are much more media savvy. It's just time. These young women have so much to bring to the table and it's our responsibility to listen.

For someone who doesn't know where to start, what are some easy steps they can take to begin leading a more heart healthy life?

One of my favorite things to do is to drive through Chick-fil-A, get their grilled chicken nuggets and put them in the refrigerator. If I get hungry between meals, I'll grab a couple of chicken nuggets and it takes the edge off. It may sound silly, but it prevents me from opening the drawer and grabbing chips.

Start walking. You can start in small increments and work your way up. I did and now I go two miles every day, twice in the summer. Plus, it's great for organizing your thoughts. Exercise isn't just about going down a dress size, it's about mental stability. My eyes have really opened in the past year to see that the time we have isn't expected, it truly is a gift and I have to take steps to protect my own survival.

Go Red for Women Luncheon
Friday, May 17, 10:30 a.m.
Little Rock Marriott
Heart.org/LittleRock

Heart Disease By the Numbers:

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined.
  • Cardiovascular diseases kill one woman about every 80 seconds.
  • More than one in three women is living with some form of cardiovascular disease.
  • About 4 million stroke survivors alive today are women.
  • Only one in five women are getting the recommended amount of physical activity.
  • More than 66 percent of women are overweight or obese.
  • Hypertension rates are expected to double among women under age 45.

Statistics obtained from the American Heart Association