In our memories, Debbie Reynolds will always be “Singin’ in the Rain” and Carrie Fisher will forever shine as Princess Leia. We should hold dear the way they make us feel each time we see them on screen.

Yet as we process their deaths, we need to remember them as more than their most beloved roles. We also must set aside the incredibly sad timing of their deaths coming a single day apart.

Once you peel away those layers, what remains is the sad reality of a mother and daughter both dying of cardiovascular diseases. Sadder still, their tale is far too common.

Cardiovascular diseases are the №1 killer of Americans, and they run in families. Women are especially at risk; heart disease is the №1 killer of women, claiming more lives each year than all forms of cancer combined. Globally, more than 17.3 million people die from heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases each year.

Odds are, you’ve heard these facts before. But sometimes it takes terrible news such as this to make those facts part of the national conversation.

As CEO of the American Heart Association, I encourage you to make our national conversation a personal one, to spark important, difficult interactions that help more people understand the threat these diseases pose. In our mourning, let’s embrace some teachable moments.

Ask your wife, your mom, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt — any and all of the women who matter most to you — when they last had a physical. If it wasn’t in 2016, challenge them to make “scheduling a well-woman visit” among their New Year’s resolutions. (Reminder: This is free under most insurance plans, including Medicare.)

If the women you love received a check-up in the past six months, ask whether they’re following their healthcare provider’s recommendations. This includes everything from taking medicines to scheduling follow-up appointments, from changing their diet to other lifestyle changes such as exercising more and quitting smoking.

And while you are on this subject, be sure to ask whether they know that heart attack symptoms are often different for women than men.

The classic symptom is still chest pain or discomfort that can linger for several minutes or go away and come back. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience warning signs such as:

  • Pain or discomfort that moves across the back or jaw. It also could manifest in the arm, neck or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea or vomiting. Cold sweats or feeling light-headed can be factors, too.

Now, about the men in your life.

It’s important to remember heart disease is their №1 killer, too. Obviously this means they also should regularly get a check-up and follow doctor’s orders, and all best practices when it comes to a healthy lifestyle.

Here’s something else to sprinkle into your conversation with loved ones: Cardiovascular diseases are largely preventable.

A great road map to health and well-being is Life’s Simple 7. There’s even a Life’s Simple 7 for Kids.

As 2016 draws to a close, we’re inundated with reminders of lives lost this year — from cardiovascular diseases to other causes, from famous faces to those familiar in our private lives. The memories bring an understandable sense of sadness.

Yet the dawning of a new year offers the hope of better days ahead.

Healthier days, too.

Originally published at