Thanks to Saint Valentine and Cupid, hearts are unavoidable this time of year. But Valentine’s Day isn’t the only reason hearts are top of mind this month. February is American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about the leading cause of death in the country: heart disease.
Long considered a “man’s disease,” heart disease actually kills more women than men each year and is more deadly than all cancers combined. One in three female adults has some form of heart disease, yet the symptoms are often hard to detect. Unlike men, who experience crushing chest pain, most women with heart disease do not show any of the classic warning signs.
“For women, symptoms can be mild or infrequent, which can lead them to wait longer to seek treatment,” says Jolene Kelly, chair and program director of the Physician Assistant program at Des Moines University. “Chest pain is the classic symptom for men, but is less common in women.”
Knowing the warning signs of heart disease can go a long way towards prevention. The most common symptoms for women are fatigue, shortness of breath, indigestion or nausea and pain in the jaw, throat and arm.
“If you experience any of these symptoms, see your health care provider right away,” advises Kelly.
Heart disease affects women of all ages, but the risk increases with age, especially after 55. A family history of the disease also plays a role, but the other risk factors are largely avoidable by living a healthy lifestyle: eating right, exercising and abstaining from tobacco use. Kelly also recommends taking these steps:
• Get a physical. A regular physical exam can uncover the warning signs of heart disease early on, before years of unchecked symptoms do their damage.
• Know your levels. High levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar can lead to heart disease. “Get screened so you know your levels,” Kelly says. “If any of them get too high, your health care provider can prescribe treatment to help keep them in check.”
• Be open with your health care provider. Heart disease is a silent killer. Symptoms may be present for years before a heart attack occurs. Report fainting episodes, irregular heartbeat, chest pain and other issues to your health care provider.
Heart disease affects the lives of millions of Americans, but it can be beaten if people are proactive. As you open your heart-shaped cards and gifts this Valentine’s Day, let it be a reminder to check your heart health.
Information provided by Des Moines University Clinic, 3200 Grand Ave., 271-1700.