It’s February already, and you know that that means. Everything is about to become pink & red & flowers 💕 (Let’s be honest, though, stores started setting up for Valentine’s Day even before Christmas…😑).
It also means it’s the official American Heart Month. Unfortunately it’s not because everyone just loves Love, but instead because heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, for both men and women, and across most racial lines (bummer). I imagine that when you hear “heart disease” you probably think “heart attack,” or maybe that’s just me, but either way, the term heart disease actually covers any sort of disorder that directly affects the heart. So, arrhythmia (irregular heart beats), congenital (present from birth) heart problems, and heart failure, among many other scary things, are all types of heart diseases. Other, often related, cardiovascular diseases include atherosclerosis (building of plaque inside artery walls), aneurysms, and stroke.
I mean, I’m sure February was chosen as Heart Month because it’s already associated with hearts, but man, way to co-op a happy holiday month and make it terrifying.. Let’s learn a few more terrifying things, though, to scare ourselves into doing something about it, maybe?
Every year, over 600,000 people in the US alone die from heart disease. The biggest risk factors for developing heart disease, for everyone, are high blood pressure, high (LDL (bad)) cholesterol, and smoking.
Take, for example, the most common example of a symptom of heart attack. The pain or tightness in the chest that spreads to the left arm is universal, right? It’s in all the TV shows. WRONG. At least half of women who have suffered from a heart attack didn’t have these symptoms. In fact, women often tend to experience pain in the right arm, not the left arm. Also, women more frequently report neck and back pain, along with GI problems. (🎶 nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea 🎶). Another common female symptom is extreme fatigue.
And again, while the regular things like high cholesterol and high blood pressure are definitely risk factors for everyone, other things like diabetes, depression, lack of estrogen, and pregnancy complications may affect the development of heart disease in women more so than in men (obvi. the preggo thing).
Scary, right? It’s actually about to get scarier, ladies.
In treating cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis, men tend to exhibit more unevenly-spaced blockages, whereas women usually have plaque more evenly spread along the artery walls. This, unfortunately, makes it more difficult for doctors to identify the plaques using the standard test of cardiac catheterization. This test has long been the “gold standard,” that is, the best/most reliable diagnostic test, although unfortunately it may be only the gold standard for men. Currently, only about 24% of the participants in heart-health studies are women, so we may have to wait a hot minute for more wide-ranging detection systems.
HOWEVER there are things we can do in the mean time, all of us.
High cholesterol and high blood pressure are usually caused by a not-so-good diet and/or a less-than-active lifestyle, and the good news is that both of these things can be remedied without an emergency room! The American Heart Association suggests that as little as 40 minutes of exercise 3 to 4 times a week helps keep you healthy. You don’t need to train like an Olympian; this includes walking! (At a pace, not necessarily a Sunday stroll, though).
Exercise is so incredibly good for you and for your heart. It helps maintain normal blood pressure and weight, as well as slashing your risk for a stroke by 20%, when in conjunction with a healthy diet (low in sodium & bad cholesterol, for example) and lifestyle (no smoking, sleeping enough, handling stress in a positive way). What I’m saying is that you don’t necessarily have to make sweeping changes to your lifestyle; just start small.