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What You Need to Know to Prevent Heart Disease

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Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women in America. Yet, many women continue to underestimate their risk of developing heart disease

The good news is that heart disease can be prevented. You can significantly lower your risk of heart disease—by as much as 82 percent—by adopting sensible health habits. So, no matter what your age, now is the time to start taking steps to improve your heart health. This goes for your children and other family members, too. Read on to learn how to fight the increasing rates of obesity and inactive lifestyles—major risks for health conditions associated with heart disease.

Factors That Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease

Heart disease includes heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases. What makes a person more likely to develop heart disease? The following are known risk factors for heart disease:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Physical inactivity
  • Overweight/obesity
  • High blood pressure, also called hypertension
  • High LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and/or low HDL, or "good" cholesterol
  • Pre-diabetes or diabetes

Many of these factors tend to cluster—if you have one, you are likely to have others, too. For example, someone who is obese is very likely to develop diabetes, to not be getting enough exercise and to have high cholesterol and blood pressure.

How you respond to stress and drinking too much alcohol can also make you more vulnerable to heart disease.

While some risk factors are beyond your control, such as increasing age and family history of early heart disease, the lifestyle choices you make every day can have a big impact on your risk of heart disease.

Taking Charge of Your and Your Family's Health

As the health manager for your family, you can take charge and create a heart-healthy environment, which encourages kids to adopt healthful habits early on. By making the following lifestyle changes yourself, you can also lower your risk of heart disease and improve your overall physical and mental health.

Work together to build a heart-healthy home by:

  1. Stopping smoking or never starting to smoke

    Reason: Tobacco smoke increases the likelihood that your arteries will harden, which restricts blood flow to the heart. Smokers are at least twice as likely to develop heart disease as non-smokers. Women who smoke and use birth control pills are at even greater risk.

  2. Getting regular exercise

    Reason: Regular exercise improves heart function and lowers both blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. In fact, people who maintain an active lifestyle have a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes than those who do not.

  3. Eating a heart-healthy diet

    Reason: Diets that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. For healthier eating, choose foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

  4. Maintaining a healthy weight

    Reason: Excess body fat greatly increases your risk, even if you don't have any other risk factors. Losing just 10 pounds can make a big difference.

  5. Knowing your numbers

    Reason: Abnormal blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar (glucose) ranges can be red flags for diabetes and heart disease. Have regular screenings and ask your health care provider what's normal for your age. Then, you'll "know your numbers," and you'll be able to keep track of any changes that could be warning signs of heart disease or that any health problems you already have may be getting worse. Women's cholesterol is often higher than men's after 45 years of age.

Talking with Your Health Care Provider

Make sure to talk with your health care provider to determine your risk for developing heart disease. You should also be aware of the effects of obesity and other risk factors on your children's health. Be honest about your children's lifestyle during regular checkups with their pediatrician. For example, discuss whether they get enough exercise, how often they eat well-balanced meals at home, etc. Ask for guidance if you need it.

Here are some questions you might want to ask your family's health care providers, including your own:

  • What are my/my children's risk factors for heart disease?
  • Should I lose weight?
  • How will menopause impact my risk of heart disease?
  • What kind of physical activity is right for me?
  • What are my blood pressure and cholesterol levels? What is considered normal for my kids?
  • What can I/we do to lower my/our risk of heart disease?

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack: What You Need to Know

Heart disease progresses slowly, and there are often no symptoms until the disease is well under way. This is why it's never too early to think about integrating heart healthy habits into your life and your children's lives.

However, you should know the warning signs of a heart attack and what to do if you or someone you know experiences them. Heart attack signs may include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest, especially in men
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Shortness of breath
  • Anxiety
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat or feeling clammy
  • Light-headedness
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea and vomiting

Many heart attacks start slowly, as mild pain or discomfort in the chest. While men typically experience tightness in the chest, arm pain and shortness of breath—the "classic" signs of a heart attack—women are more likely to have other signs, including nausea, overwhelming fatigue and dizziness. Men are more likely to have heart attacks at an earlier age.

If you suspect you or someone else in your family may be having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Every minute matters.