Although we recognize February as American Heart Month, we need to take care of our hearts year round. Cardiovascular disease—including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure—is the leading cause of death in women. It is also a leading cause of disability, preventing many Americans from working and enjoying family activities.

So how does heart disease differ in women than men? Symptoms of heart disease or heart attack in women include:

  • Pain in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal system
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

Heart disease is not specific to age. Women of all ages should take active steps to prevent heart disease, especially those with a family history of heart disease. Many factors in daily life may also cause more stress on the heart. A surprising contributor, mental stress, may trigger heart disease symptoms or heart attack in women. Symptoms of heart attack or disease may worsen when a woman is resting or asleep. Symptoms may also be less subtle and may cause further heart damage if not treated early or ignored.

Certain risk factors may apply to both men and women; however, women have to be on the lookout for gender specific triggers such as menopause or pregnancy complications. While certain risk factors like getting older or having a family history of heart disease cannot be changed, each of us does have the power to control a variety of factors that can reduce the likelihood of heart attacks and stroke. Check out the following factors of heart disease you can be mindful of to help lower your risk.

MENTAL HEALTH

Depression and other mental disorders may make it harder to maintain a healthy lifestyle or continue focus on recommended treatment. Women who suffer from depression or other mental health disorders have a higher risk of heart disease as these disorders put added stress on the heart.

CHOLESTEROL AND BLOOD PRESSURE

Your health care provider can measure your blood cholesterol with a simple blood test, take your blood pressure, and determine if your weight is in the healthy range. It helps to know your numbers if you are going to tackle your heart disease risk factors. These are basic but important things to monitor to be sure you are on the right path to continuing good health.

According to heart disease specialists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), controlling high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure significantly reduces the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Diet modifications and exercise may reduce these risk factors, or your doctor may recommend prescription medications.

WEIGHT AND DIET

These may sound like simple things to control but they present some of the biggest challenges to your health. Fortunately, even a small weight loss—if you are overweight—can help lower your risk for heart attack or stroke. A heart-healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and fat-free or low fat dairy products. Try to avoid foods with saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar.

EXERCISE

Don’t forget to include exercise with that heart-healthy diet. The NIH recommends at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. However, as little as 30 minutes of daily exercise can protect your heart. Use a variety of exercises so that you don’t get bored. Try a brisk walk, running, swimming, or dancing. Even taking the stairs instead of an elevator will give your heart a good workout and make a difference.

KICK THE HABIT

Finally, if you are a smoker...quit today! It is hard on the heart. Cigarette smoking is directly linked to 30 percent of all heart disease deaths in the United States each year. It’s not easy and not everyone can kick the habit the same way. Ask your health care provider for help.

INFLAMMATORY DISEASES

Women who suffer from inflammatory diseases, including lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. Regularly taking prescriptions as prescribed by a doctor for these risk factors may help to control or prevent the development of heart disease in women.

Heart disease knows no boundaries. In fact, heart disease causes death in one out of every three women per year. By taking positive, proactive steps today to adjust and modify bad behaviors which lead to increased risk, we can begin to turn those statistics around.


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