updated 02/01/2008 AT 11:20 AM ET
•originally published 02/01/2008 AT 12:30 PM ET
Helping kick off National Heart Month – which covers all of February and also encompasses Valentine’s Day – Grammy winner Toni Braxton tells PEOPLE she is uniquely qualified to become involved in cardio awareness.
“I am here because I’m the spokesperson this year for the American Heart Association,” Braxton, 40, said Thursday at Woman’s Day Presents the 5th Annual “The Red Dress Awards” inside Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, “and because I’m a survivor.”
Despite appearing to be in great shape, “I have heart disease, and I found out about five or four years ago,” said Braxton, who was appearing in Broadway’s Aida at the time she saw the doctor – and was under the impression she felt the way she did simply because she was exhausted.
She found out she had pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. “And,” she said, “I’ve also been diagnosed with hypertension.”
Of course, the news came as a shock. “I was disappointed. I didn’t get it,” she remembers reacting. But she did spring into action. “I had to make lifestyle and diet changes.”
Now, she says, “I eat relatively well, but sometimes having those pizzas and burgers late at night – I had to change that.”
Good idea: Heart Month comes around to remind everyone, but especially women, about potentially fatal cardiovascular disease, which takes the lives of more than 460,000 American women a year – more than any other cause of death.
In an American Heart Association survey in the past two years, 77 percent of Caucasian women were aware that heart disease was the No. 1 killer, while only 38 percent of African-American women and 34 percent of Latina women knew of this.
African-American women are also greater risks for heart attacks, in part due to earlier exposure to such risk factors as high blood pressure and diabetes.