February is not just for Valentines!
When February rolls around each year, what do most women think of? Valentines Day, of course! While that is perfectly OK, let me suggest something much more important--prevention of heart disease. While this may not sound very romantic, let's all make it a point this month to learn more about "Heart Health".
Although February has been designated American Heart Month, it is important to practice common sense all year long when it comes down to disease prevention. The truth is that many of us still don't realize how common heart disease is in women, and often take the attitude of "Oh, that's not my problem". That's wrong!
Heart disease is THE leading cause of death in both men AND women in our country. According to the American Heart Association, women account for almost one-half of all heart disease deaths. So you see, the belief that only old men die of heart attacks is just not true. One out of three women will develop heart disease during their lifetime, but many women don't even know they are at risk, and even worse, don't take the steps to find out their risk.
As with many illnesses, prevention is the key. Although there are some factors that we cannot change, such as family history, age, and sex, just as important are those things that we can and should change: our lifestyle and habits. This may be easier said than done for some of us!
To borrow from the Mayo Clinic, I suggest that all women follow these five "medication-free" strategies:
1) DON'T SMOKE! Chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels, leading to narrowing of the arteries and eventually to a heart attack. Nicotine makes the heart work harder by narrowing vessels and causing an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. The good news is that it's never too late --the risk for heart disease drops dramatically within the first year of stopping.
2) EXERCISE! Physical activity for 30-60 minutes a day helps to control weight and reduce the chances of developing conditions that put a strain on the heart. Even shorter amounts of exercise can offer benefits. Breaking up workouts into 10 minute sessions are practical (and take away our excuses!) Remember, it's not just about being at the gym; activities such as taking stairs, walking the dog, and gardening all count. However, you'll get more benefits by increasing intensity, duration, and frequency of the workout.
3) EAT A HEART HEALTHY DIET! This primarily means foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt. Aim for a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. As difficult as it may be, it's smart to limit red meats, deep fried foods, packaged snack foods, margarine, and bakery products, as these are common sources of saturated and trans fats (which raise cholesterol and increase risk of heart disease). Drink alcohol only in moderation (that's one drink per day for women). We've all been told that one glass of red wine may be protective against heart disease, but more than that is likely to be hazardous to our health. 4) MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT! When adults put on weight, it is more likely to be fat than muscle. Excess weight means higher risk for heart disease, increased blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Find out what your BMI, or body mass index is. This is an indicator of your body fat, and ideally should be below 25. Greater than 30 means obesity.
5) GET REGULAR HEALTH SCREENINGS! Regular blood pressure checks should start in childhood. Adults should have blood pressure checks at least every two years, and even more frequently if they have other risk factors. It is reasonable to check cholesterol levels every 5 years after age 20. Children should be checked if they are significantly overweight or have a strong family history of heart disease. Thirdly, with diabetes being so common, all adults should consider having a fasting blood sugar check. Your physician can make recommendations as to the frequency of follow-up testing.
Lastly, know the warning signs of a heart attack:
- chest pain, usually slow and mild in onset, but may be sudden
- pain in shoulders, arms,back, neck, and jaw
- shortness of breath
- breaking out in a cold sweat
Remember that heart disease can affect women of all ages, so it's really never too early to begin taking steps to prevent it. Take a look at your lifestyle and make those changes that will lead to a healthier you!