February is National Heart Month, a great time to educate our community on the facts of heart disease, the number one cause of death for men and women.
In the United States, 600,000 people die of heart disease each year and 720,000 people have a heart attack. This means one in every four is the result of heart disease, an especially alarming fact when you consider that most women aren’t aware of it and don’t feel they are at risk.
Historically, heart disease has generally been considered a “man’s disease” and research on heart disease and stroke has been performed primarily on men. That means most treatment and education has also been directed toward men.
Complicating this situation is the fact that women’s symptoms can be very different from men’s symptoms. We have all heard of the classic symptoms of a heart attack: chest pressure in the middle of the chest that radiates to the left arm or jaw. Women’s symptoms are much different, however, and are more likely to involve such symptoms as back pain between the shoulder blades, pain in the stomach, right arm pain, shortness of breath without chest pain, lightheadedness, nausea or breaking out in a cold sweat.
Symptoms can be subtle and are often attributed to other things such as flu, acid reflux or normal aging.
It is critical to know your personal risk factors for heart disease and stroke since most of them can be modified. Since you can do something to improve them, you can play an important role in the outcome of your own health by keeping your numbers within recommended ranges.
There are three risk factors that can not be modified: increasing age, a family history of cardiovascular disease and being male. Those that can be modified include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, stress, obesity, poor eating habits and not being physically active.
Check your personal risk factors. Making it a point to make changes and keep them under control can be the difference in developing heart disease or not. If you already have heart disease, managing your risk factors can help slow down its progression.
It’s not all or nothing. Every positive change you make can make big differences in your health. Talk to your doctor about any of your risk factors and how to manage them. Eating heart healthy and exercising 30 minutes a day four to six days per week can go a long way to assist with lowering or managing your risks.
Find an exercise buddy. Join an exercise group or fitness center. Having a support system can assist with keeping you motivated to make these changes.
To raise awareness of heart disease in women, the American Heart Association created Go Red for Women day, an action to help save lives. The more educated our community is, the more this knowledge can be passed on to your family and friends and potentially save lives.
Go Red for Women is this Friday, Feb. 6. Wear something red and share your knowledge of heart disease with your loved ones, friends and co-workers. Be a positive role model, not just for yourself, but for others who may follow in your footsteps.
Melissa Stewart, R.N., is a cardiac rehab nurse for FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital. For more information on services available, visit www.firsthealth.org.