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Healthy Living

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