By Nola Aigner, Health Educator/Public Information Officer, Polk County Health Department
At age 21, having bad cholesterol or thinking about heart disease was the least of my worries. I remember sitting at my doctor’s office finding out that my cholesterol was higher than normal, which is a risk factor for heart disease. I wondered how that could be; I exercised daily and ate healthy. Yet, I was unaware of the larger role your family’s health can contribute to your own personal health. My dad had triple bypass surgery at the age of 50 and my grandma had several heart surgeries, all due to heart disease.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. Women are under the assumption, their greatest health risk is cancer related. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease kills approximately one woman every minute. Heart disease kills one out of three women each year compared to breast cancer, which kills one in 31 women. We are often misinformed about the signs and symptoms of heart disease and heart attacks because men and women experience it differently. Well, women, it’s time to get informed!
Heart disease affects your cardiovascular system. The American Heart Association notes many problems arise from this, the most common one being related to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis happens when plaque which includes cholesterol builds up in the walls of your arteries. This buildup makes it difficult for the blood to flow through the arteries. If a clot does form, it can stop the blood from flowing and can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. Heart disease can also cause congestive heart failure, abnormal heart rhythm and valve problems.
Most often, women overlook a heart attack because we don’t think it could happen to us or are unaware of the signs. According to the American Heart Association, some women have assumed heart attack symptoms were associated with normal aging, the flu or even acid reflux. The symptoms of a heart attack for women are different from men. One of the more common symptoms for women is chest pain. The pain could feel like uncomfortable pressure or squeezing. This pain could be found anywhere in your chest, not just the left side. Chest pain could also appear gradually. Any unusual chest pain should be reported to your health care provider. Jaw and back pain are other symptoms women experience when having a heart attack. This could be due to referred pain because sometimes our heart can’t give us a good signal to where the pain is coming from. Women could also have abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, cold sweats or light-headedness, which could be easily confused for the flu. If you are having a difficult time breathing for no apparent reason, this could be another indication you are having a heart attack, especially if you are suffering from one of the above symptoms. If you think you have any of these symptoms, seek emergency help and call 911. It is better to be safe than sorry.
Heart disease is scary, but by developing healthy behaviors, you can lower your chances. February is American Heart Month. Schedule an appointment with your health care provider to learn if you are at risk for heart disease or heart attacks. If you smoke, now is the perfect time to quit. If you quit for a year, you can improve your risk of heart disease by 50 perfect. Call Quitline Iowa at 1 800 QUIT NOW or visit them online at www.quitnow.net/iowa for help and tobacco cessation tools. Stay physically fit; this includes exercising 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week and eating healthy. This will help to decrease your risk for a heart attack.
Now at the age of 29, it sometimes is a struggle to stay active and eat foods that are good for my heart, but by living a healthy lifestyle, I will lower my chances of heart disease. I will benefit my health and my family’s health in the future!