February is all about hearts. Not only is it the month dedicated to love; romantic and platonic, but it is also American Heart Month – the month devoted to making sure everyone knows how to keep the heart they share on Valentine’s Day healthy and strong. It is an unfortunate fact that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US. It kills thousands more each year than all cancers combined. Luckily, there is a lot of information about heart disease, and education is a great way to arm yourself. Think: “Know thy enemy…” because understanding the warning signs and risk factors can dramatically improve your odds of living a longer healthier life.
Regrettably, even people who have been healthy and have lead healthy lifestyles their entire lives can develop heart disease. Knowing the warning signs can help save your life by getting you proper care as soon as possible. Basically, heart disease occurs when the heart cannot function normally. The most common form of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease (CAD). CHD is the narrowing of the coronary arteries, the ones that supply oxygen to the heart. This narrowing is frequently caused by plaque build-up within the blood vessel walls. Put simply, CHD is when an accumulation of bad cholesterol slowly suffocates the heart. Symptoms of CHD include shortness of breath, chest pain, and heart attack. Shortness of breath can be a tricky symptom as it often results from physical exertion. You are the only one who understands how your body should feel. So, if you are short of breath when you think you should have been able to do more, you may want to discuss this with your doctor. Chest pain can happen during physical activities or while you are at rest. They can even encompass the neck, jaw, teeth, shoulders, arms, and back. Chest pain is not a good sign, and should never be ignored! Shortness of breath and chest pain are symptoms that can start out a relatively insignificant, but grow into something more substantial as further damage accumulates. Seeing your doctor regularly and discussing these problems can help to diagnose such health issues faster. The sooner treatment is received, the better your outcome and chances of not having that heart attack.
Unfortunately, avoiding a heart attack is something that can only be strived for, not guaranteed - especially when realizing that age is its biggest risk factor. A heart attack happens when a part of the heart dies because it was denied a sufficient amount of blood and oxygen. Symptoms may include chest pain/discomfort, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, gray pallor, feeling clammy/sweaty, generally feeling awful, extreme anxiety (usually about dying), and restlessness. Note: chest pain is not always present during a heart attack (especially among women). Few of these symptoms can be classified as brightly waving red flags, therefore paying attention to your body can be lifesaving. As mentioned before, you are the only one who knows how your body feels when you are well, unwell, or otherwise. So, even without the quintessential chest pains, if you think you are having a heart attack seek help immediately. Also, (women) question a diagnosis of anxiety. Many women are sent home from the hospital with “anxiety” only to die later of the heart attack they went in with. Remember: it is better to be a little embarrassed about overreacting than dead.
Heart failure is another common heart problem that should be better understood. Heart failure does not mean the heart stopped beating, but that it stopped beating normally; it is when the heart can no longer pump blood as efficiently as it once could. Most often it results from CHD, though it does have other contributors such as previous heart attack. Common symptoms include shortness of breath; trouble breathing when lying down; fluid buildup/weight gain; swelling of the feet, legs, ankles, and or stomach; and general feelings of tiredness or weakness. The symptoms usually present over the course of a few weeks or months, but the disease itself can take years to develop. Like CHD, heart failure can be managed by carefully following your doctor’s advice, and staved off by making healthy lifestyle changes such as eating right, exercising, and quitting smoking.
If you have managed to avoid heart disease so far, know that there are a few things you can do to lower your risks. Knowing the risk factors means knowing what to keep an eye on, avoid, or change in one’s daily routine. Some risk factors include: age; having a medical condition such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity; and practicing unhealthy habits such as smoking, not exercising, and eating foods high in fats, sodium, and/or cholesterol.
As far as age is concerned, increasing the number of candles on your birthday cake also increases the risk of having narrowed or damaged arteries. As such, men who are over 45 and women over 55 are at greater risk of heart attack. If you have reached an age to be in a higher risk group then there is not much to do about it but congratulate yourself for having lived long enough to worry about heart problems, and make sure you see your doctor for regular checkups.
Certain medical conditions can also increase one’s risk of developing heart disease. Most notably, one of the leading causes of the disease is uncontrolled high blood pressure. According to the CDC, one of the best things that can be done to ensure a healthy heart is to keep track of your blood pressure, even if you think your blood pressure is fine. This is because high blood pressure is a sneaky sinister thing often displaying no symptoms, making it difficult to catch unless you have regular checkups with your doctor. Fortunately, high blood pressure, like many other medical conditions, can be managed by follow your doctor’s advice such as making dietary changes and taking all medications as directed.
As for the unhealthy habits, start changing them now. If you smoke, quit. If you are sedentary, exercise. If you never eat vegetables, start. Fortunately, lifestyle changes do not have to happen all at once, so you need not feel overwhelmed by the thought of change. More often than not, starting out with smaller healthier alterations that can be built on over time leads to more permanent beneficial results. For example, if you have never been one to exercise, start out slowly. You can break up your workouts into 2 or 3 10 minute segments throughout the day pacing yourself into better shape. Keep in mind, that even small healthy changes can go a long way to improving your overall health.
February is all about hearts. So this Valentine’s Day, think more about your heart; the one that really makes life and love possible, not just the one made of chocolate.