According to the American Heart Association, Heart disease – also called cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease – is a simple term used to describe several problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. As the plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke.
Men and women experience similar symptoms for heart attack, with the most common being chest pain and discomfort. Classic angina, or chest pain due to low blood flow to the heart muscle, is typically described as uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or heaviness over the left anterior chest. It can radiate to the left arm or jaw, and is usually brought on by exertion. It can last for several minutes, it may come and go.
Women can experience a heart attack without these typical symptoms. Instead, they may experience atypical symptoms such as pain or discomfort in both arms, back, neck, and stomach. They may develop shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort. Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness. Their symptoms may be more subtle. Diabetic women are more likely to present with atypical symptoms.
There are many steps you can take to help prevent heart disease, but they all require being proactive and taking action to control your risk factors. Start with the following activities:
- If you smoke, quit. Smoking is one of the strongest risk factors, and thereby strongest predictors of not only heart disease, but almost all vascular disease, including peripheral vascular disease. Talk with your primary care doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Manage your blood pressure. Hypertension, or elevated blood pressure, is a risk factor for heart disease. Seeing your primary care doctor for routine wellness checks will provide screening blood pressure readings. If your blood pressure is elevated talk to your doctor about treatment – which will include therapeutic lifestyle changes and can include pharmacologic treatment.
- Know your cholesterol. Hyperlipidemia, or elevated cholesterol numbers, is a strong risk factor for heart disease. Get a screening lipid panel and talk to your primary care doctor about the results. Based on your results and risk factors, your doctor will decide if you warrant further treatment.
- Avoid diabetes. Diabetes patients are at high risk for developing heart disease, so much so that diabetes is considered a heart attack equivalent. Get screened for diabetes. If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes, manage your condition collectively with lifestyle changes (diet and exercise) as well as pharmacologic treatment. A diagnosis of diabetes brings about unique indications for pharmacologic treatment of cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Know your family history. Family history of heart disease, particularly at younger ages, puts you at risk for developing heart disease yourself, and is taken into consideration by your doctor to determine your overall risk for heart disease.
- Maintain a healthy and nutritious diet. A healthy diet includes a variety of vegetables and fruits. It also includes whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and protein foods, such as lean meats, poultry without skin, seafood, processed soy products, nuts, seeds, beans, and peas.
- Reduce stress, as stress can bring about heart disease. Find ways to manage your stress, by engaging in activities that you enjoy.
- Exercise. Regular exercise will help prevent heart disease, and it will help prevent you from developing risk factors that are associated with heart disease.
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