Valentine’s Day is known as the universal day of love, but the traditional heart-shaped boxes of candy may not be the best way to shower your lady with love and romance. This is because February also marks Heart Health Awareness Month, putting much-needed focus on one of the biggest threats to women’s health worldwide, giving her support, advice and helpful information on how to improve her health and lifestyle may be a better ‘gift’.
According to the World Health Federation, more than 8.6 million women across the globe die of heart disease each year, more than those who die from cancer, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
But while heart disease is responsible for one-third of all deaths for women and kills more women than men worldwide, it is still traditionally considered a disease that primarily affects men.
“Most women, and even many of their physicians, don't consider women as being at high risk of heart disease, even though it is the number one killer of women in the United States,” says Dr. Suzanne M. Hall, medical director of the Women's Cardiovascular Program at Providence Heart and Vascular Institute.
Education is key
In order to boost awareness of heart disease, the international campaign Go Red for Women has been devoted to the prevention, diagnosis and control of heart disease and stroke in women. Kicked off in 2004 by the American Heart Association, the campaign is focused on turning the tide, ensuring that women worldwide are treated equally when it comes to their health.
The best first defense is knowing what symptoms to look for, since heart disease – or worse, a heart attack - in women can present itself in a variety of symptoms, including:
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling sick to the stomach
- Feeling anxious or nervous
- Experiencing new or worsening headaches
- A dull ache in the chest
- Pain or tightness in the chest that spreads to the jaw, neck, shoulders, ear or arms
- Burning in the chest
- Pain in the back between the shoulders
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling tired or weak
- Heart flutters
While men tend to experience chest pain, numbness down their left arms or even pain under the jaw when they suffer a heart attack, for women the pain could be a symptom for a lot of different things, making it harder to recognize for women, and for their doctors to diagnose.
No diagnosis means no treatment
Women who have heart attacks are statistically more likely to die at an earlier age than their male counterparts, and are more likely to experience heart-related strokes.
Experts say that the majority of heart disease cases are preventable, though, which puts our care in our own control rather than in the hands of our doctors, allowing us to take steps to prevent the disease.
That is why February is not only devoted to giant teddy bears, chocolates and flowers, but also to healthy hearts – encouraging us to use our brains and hearts to effectively do what we need to in order to fight heart disease, not only for ourselves, but for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters and our grandmothers.
Know your risk factors
Being aware of the risk factors is one way to educate yourself about heart disease – and make it more likely that you’ll know when and if you’re experiencing a heart attack.
That’s important, experts say, because the more time you wait around trying to determine if you’re actually having a heart attack or not, the more damage you could be doing to your heart muscle.
Some risk factors include:
- High blood pressure - Women with high blood pressure have 3.5 times the risk of developing heart disease than women without it.
- High LDL cholesterol - Too much LDL (bad) cholesterol in the bloodstream slows blood down and can cause restrictions as it lines blood vessels, meaning less blood to and from the heart.
- Diabetes - Because diabetes causes inflammation and damage to blood vessels, it is closely linked to heart disease.
- Obesity - Being obese puts added pressure on your organs, including your heart.
- Menopause - The reduction in estrogen levels during menopause can put a strain on your heart, because the hormone not only plays a role in sexual function, bone density and metabolism, it also helps keep the heart healthy and cholesterol levels balanced.
Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease
The biggest step we can take to prevent heart disease is to get moving, experts say. According to WHO, women who engage in physical activity for less than an hour per week have 1.48 times the risk of developing coronary heart disease, compared to women who do more than three hours of physical activity per week.
Keeping the saturated and trans fat levels in your diet low is another way to reduce the risks.
- Know if you have a family history of heart disease, and alert your doctor if you do.
- Avoid excessive amounts of salt. That means eating more whole foods rather than processed foods, which are packed with sodium. Skip the frozen dinners and go for something fresh to help boost heart health.
- Kick the habit. If you smoke, stop. This is an especially important step if you take birth control pills.
- Keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- If you battle with depression, see a doctor. Chronic depression can elevate your risk of a heart attack, especially for women.
- Find a way to erase stress. If you have a lot of anxiety in your life, find a way to take it down a notch. Take up yoga and schedule regular massages to help alleviate your stress levels.
- Do not automatically start a hormone replacement regimen when menopause hits. In 2012, experts recommended against the use of hormone replacement therapy as a way to prevent osteoporosis, dementia or heart disease, since the hormones themselves can elevate the risk of heart disease, breast cancer and more. Talk to your doctor or health professional for alternative options.
Exercise is essential
When it comes to heart health, establishing a workout program is the most important step you can take. Like any other muscle, the heart grows stronger when challenged, and experts say that aerobic exercise focusing on making the heart work harder is the most effective way to boost heart strength.
But that doesn’t mean is you should spend hours working out in the gym.
In his latest book “A Short Guide to a Long Life,” Dr. David B. Agus says for heart health, we only need 15 minutes of exercise a day, provided we elevate our heart rate by 50 percent during the duration of our workout.
“If you want to achieve good cardiovascular health, at least 15 minutes a day, try to get your heart rate 50 percent higher from where it starts,” says Dr. Agus.
The American Heart Association agrees, and suggests the same 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise – or 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise – for the most heart-healthy results.
“You will experience benefits even if you divide your time into two or three segments of 10 to 15 minutes per day,” the group says on its website.
So, what are the most effective ways to boost your heart rate?
Anything that elevates both your respiratory system and heart rate is great, provided you like it. The biggest road block to establishing an exercise program is finding the motivation to stick to it, and choosing an exercise you enjoy means you’ve won half the battle.
“If you're not enjoying your workouts, try something different,” say the experts at the Mayo Clinic. “Join a volleyball or softball league. Take a ballroom dancing class. Check out a health club or martial arts center. Discover your hidden athletic talent. Remember, you're more likely to stick with a fitness program if you're having fun.”
Some heart-healthy workouts include walking (use hills and speed to increase your workout), running, swimming, cycling and circuit training, which strengthens and tones all your body’s muscles, including your heart.
So wear red, devote yourself to an exercise plan and if you must eat chocolate for Valentine’s Day, choose dark chocolate. The antioxidants and flavonoids in dark chocolate are associated with helping support the body against free radicals and improve vascular health, such as lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow to the brain and heart.
Consumption of dark chocolate is ok, especially with regular consumption of other antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and veggies, moderate amounts of red wine and tea.
Taking natural supplements such as Omega 3 / DHA Fish Oil and Total Balance Women’s can also help replenish your body with key nutrients, amino acids and other ingredients to help support the health of your body’s systemic functions, including your heart and vascular system.