February is American Heart Month, an effort to raise awareness about heart health and how to prevent heart disease. With heart disease being the number one cause of death for both men and women in this country, it is more important than ever to understand one’s risks, become aware of signs and symptoms and make lifestyle improvements to prevent the disease.
Increasing awareness is even more important for women, as heart disease now kills more women than men in this country. Statistics from the American Heart Association show that one woman every minute dies from heart disease in the U.S.
“When you look at cardiovascular disease as a whole, including heart disease and stroke, it takes one in three women’s lives, yet fewer than 20 percent of women consider heart disease or stroke their greatest health threat,” says Jeanne Kearns, Executive Director of the North Bay Division of the American Heart Association (AHA).
For the past 16 years, the American Heart Association has made a big push, especially through their “Go Red for Women” initiative, to increase awareness and dispel the prevailing myth that heart disease is an “old man’s disease.” In reality heart disease is not discriminating, but can affect any gender, at any age, and in any demographic.
“It can happen to anyone at any time,” says Kearns. “A lot of people are surprised to realize this is not an older man’s disease. Cardiac arrest can strike at any time to anyone…Even new- born babies can be born with congenital heart defects.”
Part of increasing public awareness is helping women understand that the symptoms of heart disease, or a heart attack, can differ in women. Whereas men more often have the traditional feeling of pressure, tightness, pain or a squeezing sensation in their chest or arms, women’s symptoms can vary from unusual fatigue, sweating, or shortness of breath, to pain in the neck, jaw or back.
“Part of the reason why women are affected disproportionately is because heart disease can present itself differently in women than it does in men,” says Kearns. “Women can have symptoms that are more flu-like. They feel fatigued, or nauseous, or maybe they have some pain in their jaw, neck or back, or have a sensation of indigestion.”
In addition to not being aware of the symptoms, women also have the tendency to push their health aside or explain it away as normal stress or fatigue because they are busy caring for their families. The American Heart Association urges women to seek medical attention when they experience any of these symptoms.
The good news is that heart disease is 80 percent preventable. Both men and women can drastically lower their risks by making healthy choices in diet and exercise, knowing their health history, getting annual check-ups, and monitoring their blood pressure and cholesterol. The American Heart Association determined seven risk factors, which they call “Life’s Simple 7,” that, if followed, can improve cardiovascular health. According to the organization, people following at least five of these factors had a 78 percent reduced risk for heart-related death compared to people not following any of the factors. AHA’s “Life’s Simple 7,” include: stop smoking, eat better, get active, lose weight, manage blood pressure, control cholesterol, and reduce blood sugar.
For more information, visit www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/education-and-awareness/heart-month or heart.org.