February is Heart Awareness Month, which means that it is time to take charge of your heart’s health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, so let’s start by clearing up some common misconceptions of heart disease.
Heart disease is more common among men—false.
Many people think that heart disease is more common in men but that is simply not true. Every minute in the United States, someone’s wife, mother, daughter or sister dies from heart disease. The truth is more than one in three women has cardiovascular (heart) disease.
Many people often ignore signs of small pains or symptoms because they aren’t considered the traditional signs of cardiovascular problems—true.
Shortness of breath, unexplained fatigue, pain, pressure, or squeezing sensation in the lower chest can all be signs of heart problems. Many times people who have heart attacks may begin experiencing symptoms as early as six weeks prior to the event. Gastrointestinal symptoms can easily be mistaken as a bothersome stomachache (nausea/upset stomach). The latter symptom is one that can easily be missed by men and especially by women, but if you know that heart disease runs in your family, then you are at risk and should seek medical attention regarding your symptoms.
Once you’re diagnosed with heart disease, there’s no hope for you—false.
A diagnosis of heart disease does not mean that you are doomed to have a cardiovascular episode, heart disease can be managed. People who are at risk for heart disease need to work closely with their doctors in order to be in the best possible control of their heart health by making better food selections and staying active.
If you have a history of heart disease and want to know how to reduce your risk of heart attack, here some tips on staying heart healthy.
Have regular checkups with a doctor who knows you. It is important to establish a relationship with a primary care physician because they can monitor your health over time and will know what is normal for you.
Pay attention to your body. If you notice discomfort in your chest, jaw, or left arm, lasting more than a few minutes, this is a sign that you should seek medical attention right away. It can feel like an uncomfortable pain, pressure, squeezing sensation, fullness, or stomach discomfort. Not everyone has classic heart attack symptoms. Sometimes they are subtle episodes of pain that may come and go.
Know your numbers. One way to take ownership for your own health is to know your numbers and know what they mean. This includes blood pressure, blood sugar (blood glucose), body mass index (weight measurements), and cholesterol levels.
Plan your diet. Don’t stress yourself out planning full blown menus, instead make healthier choices at the grocery store and stock your fridge with food that is easy to make and healthy to eat. Try and aim to make sure that everything you eat meets the “heart healthy” food test.
Stay active and exercise! This is very important! A pedometer can be a great tool to help you gauge how much movement you are getting. Exercise is critical and it is important to get into a daily exercise regimen. Check with your primary care physician so that you know what is considered “safe exercise” for you, and do it every day. Whether it’s walking during lunch or going on a bike ride after work, just get up and move!
Dr. Jann Caison-Sorey, is a pediatrician and the senior medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
Photo credit: Jo Christian Oterhals