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Healthy Aging
Love Your Heart on Valentine's Day (and All Year Long)

Love Your Heart on Valentine's Day (and All Year Long)

By Sheryl Kraft

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Valentine's is the day we're programmed to think about love, poetry, sex, romance, chocolates, gifts, flowers or the saint who started it all. Instead, I'm going to change the channel and write about the heart from a different and most important perspective: the physical heart, not the spiritual one … and how to keep it healthy.

Movies dramatize it all the time—that pivotal moment of chest grabbing, the powerful inward breath followed by a dramatic collapse to the floor. A heart attack. And chances are, the person shown having the attack is a man.

But heart disease knows nothing about gender discrimination. In fact, it's the number one killer of both men and women. What's important to know are the facts; your risks and especially the warning signs and the actual signs of a heart attack.

Take a glance at the eight short statements below:

  • Do you smoke? (Please quit! You'll cut your risk of heart disease by 50 percent just one year after you do.)
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • Do you have high blood cholesterol?
  • Do you have diabetes?
  • Are you overweight or obese?
  • Are you inactive?
  • Are you over age 55? (There is a significant rise in the risk of heart disease around middle age.)
  • Do you have a family history of heart attacks (especially if your relative was younger than 65 when they had a heart attack, and for males, that age goes down to 50)?

Please don't think it's a fait accompli—that you're helpless to do anything about it if you have some of these risk factors. The fact is, you have control over the first six. The last two? While you may not be able to control your age or what happened to your mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, etc., you can take this as a kick in the pants to pursue as healthy and active a lifestyle as you can muster.

Did you know that the signs of a heart attack are often different for women? Most heart attacks are not the "classic" sudden and intense variety but a bit more of the sneak-up-on-you or you're-not-sure-what's-happening variety. In fact, for many women, the signs might not involve chest pain or pressure at all.

Knowing the signs of a heart attack (compliments of the American Heart Association) can save your life, or someone else's:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

Many women (and even some medical personnel) might dismiss the complaints or even mistake the signs of a heart attack for things like stress, acid reflux, exhaustion, or even a virus or the flu. But if any of these symptoms last five minutes or longer, call 911 right away and get yourself to a hospital. It's so much better to err on the side of caution. Most women, because they're less likely to think they're actually having a problem, delay treatment. Minutes count!

And finally, because it's Valentine's Day, I'm going to give you a gift in the form of a nag. I'm sure your loving heart can indulge me, just this once. Please don't join the other 6 million American women who suffer from heart disease. Don't put your health at risk. Instead, do these things:

  • Exercise at least 30 minutes most days (60 is even better). And remember, it doesn't have to be strenuous. Gardening, walking the dog, dancing … they all count.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Add more fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy products to your diet.
  • Get regular health screenings (such as diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure).
  • Manage your stress with things like yoga, meditation or deep breathing.

PS. Here's something else to consider: A new study reports that although your risk of heart disease may be low in the short- term, your lifetime risk could still be very high. The study’s lead author, Dr. Jarett Berry, tells Newswise: "The current approach to heart disease prevention focuses on only short-term risks, which can give a false sense of security, particularly to individuals in their 40s and 50s."  We need to prevent the development of risk factors in the first place.

You might also want to read:
An Overview of Heart Disease
Understanding Your Risk for Heart Disease


Thanks for these great reminders on such an important topic. My father in law just had a triple bypass after having chest pressure and shortness of breath for months which he ignored. It's so important to get checked out!

It's good that your FIL was able to have the surgery in time to stave off any other problems. Wishing him a speedy recovery.

My dad had a heart attack, so it is something that is never far from my mind, but I do appreciate this type of update. Thanks for the reminder about stress. Have been stressed a lot this week. Also, for those with tendency to diabetes, remember to avoid BPA. New study out today in Science News: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/338202/title/BPA_fosters_diab...

Thanks for the BPA reminder, Alexandra, and hoping your stress dissipates soon!

Small changes can and do go a long way.

Agreed, Merr. Small changes are so much less intimidating to make, also. Makes you feel like it actually CAN be done.

I'm glad I almost aced this quiz, with the exception of the family history.

Women cannot be reminded too many times that the symptoms are varied and may be not the same as men's. Even my husband was warned of heart problem when he had not a pain or tightness, but just a "different" feeling in his chest when he was walking. It was enough to send him to the doc and he wound up getting a quadruple bypass. Stay aware of your body! It tells you!

True -knowing your body and staying aware is key. So glad your husband took matters into his own hands and checked with his doc. Smart man!

Important details, especially the short-term / long-term issue.

I'm glad you recommended that all women check in with their doctor sooner rather than later if they experience unusual symptoms. I notice that we ladies tend to put things off and downplay potentially life-threatening issues - after all, there's always one more bit of work to finish, someone's lunch to make, another thing to cross off the to-do list - but really, what's more important than your heart?

I agree, Casey. Lots of women have so many demands that they put their health on the bottom of the list. WE all have to remember to put our health first.

I have a hiatal (sp?) hernia that bothers me occasionally with severe chest pain. I've thought on occasion that it was a heart attack. I worry that if I ever DO have a heart attack, I'll mistake it for the hiatal hernia. Thanks for pointing out the other symptoms.

I hope that you will be able to tell the difference - or, better yet, that you WON'T have to worry about it being a heart attack. Perhaps it would be good to ask your doc about distinguishing the symptoms so you don't worry about missing something important.

having heart attacks in the family history helps make me more mindful of the things I do have control over. thanks for these reminders -- a good thing for Valentine's Day.

Like an earlier commenter, I also aced the quiz. If I weren't getting older, I'd be completely unworried about my heart -- and freer to worry about other sneaky little health problems that run in my family.

Congratulations, Ruth, on acing the quiz. Age, unfortunately, is one of those things we can't alter, but you're definitely ahead of the game.

Long history of heart attacks in my family. Even my mother, who was thin all of her life and ate healthy, eventually had a heart attack (she was a heavy smoker). I know I must do better if I do not want to meet the same fate.

That is a bit scary, LL. With some small changes and careful monitoring to live a healthy lifestyle, I'm hoping you will be able to defy your family's history of heart attacks.

Great post with plenty of practical advice. And while all exercise is good, including very low intensity activities like gardening, it's higher intensity activities that can actually raise the good, HDL cholesterol which is cardiac protective. In addition, there have been recent studies showing that people who walk very briskly are at reduced risk of a stroke compared to those who are just strolling.

I think I do everything right, but so appreciate the reminders, especially as I can see that 55 in the distance. 55 is the new 35, right?

I hear anecdotally that stress is as bad for your heart as some of the other risk factors I don't have. So stress reduction is at the top of my list of things to change.


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