February is American Heart Month, a national campaign to raise awareness about heart health and urge Americans to lower their risk for heart disease. Although heart disease is often thought of as a “man’s disease,” it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. Other risk factors include diabetes, being overweight or obese, poor diet, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol use, and a family history of early heart disease.
Even with a family history, you can make lifestyle changes to lower your risk of developing heart disease. If you already have heart disease, you should be especially careful to control risk factors. For example, if you drink alcohol, only drink in moderation. Other ways to lower your risk include the following:
- Don’t smoke and avoid second-hand smoke.
- Stay physically active. Engage in aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week or as recommended by your doctor. Even if you’ve had a heart attack already, being active helps to strengthen your heart.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet low in salt, sugar, saturated and trans fats and high in unsaturated fats (fish, avocado, etc.).
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Take your medications as prescribed and get regular check-ups.
While there are many similarities in the symptoms of heart disease in men and women, there are even more differences. For example, it’s a myth that chest pain is the only warning sign of a heart attack. Some women have no symptoms, while others may experience pain or discomfort in the chest area, or in the neck, throat or jaw, or in the upper abdomen or back. Warning signs to tell your doctor include the following:
- Chest pain or discomfort, upper back pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea/vomiting, extreme fatigue, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath.
- Fluttering feelings in the chest (palpitations).
- Leg pain or swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen.
Small steps to lead a healthier lifestyle go a long way. Reducing stress, getting enough sleep and exercise, and eating healthy foods will be beneficial to your heart and your mental and physical health no matter how old you are.
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