Think about the Heart that Matters Most

Dr. Edward Koza | 2/17/2010, 3:08 p.m.

Dr. Edward Koza, M.D.Courtesy Photo
From romantic greeting cards to boxes of chocolates, heart-shaped images are all around us this month. But all of us €" and especially women €" would be well-advised to remember that Valentine€s Day isn€t the only reason to be thinking about hearts.

February is American Heart Month, a great time to educate ourselves about how to identify, manage and prevent heart disease and to make lifestyle changes that will improve our odds of celebrating next Valentine€s Day with the ones we love.

Often considered to be a man€s disease, heart disease doesn€t discriminate. It is the Number One killer of women and men, regardless of race, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). However, some ethnic groups, including African Americans, Mexican Americans and some Asian Americans, are more likely to suffer from heart disease.
The statistics are heart stopping. The AHA reports that more than one-third of female adults has some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and that since 1984 the number of CVD deaths for females has exceeded those for males, claiming the lives of almost half a million women per year. One out of every 2.6 female deaths is from cardiovascular disease, compared with one in 30 from breast cancer.

Perhaps most alarming is the AHA€s estimate that only 13 percent of women view heart disease as a health threat, although it is their Number One killer. In part, the lack of concern may be because symptoms of heart disease often differ between men and women and early warning signs are too frequently unrecognized and undetected. For example, women are more likely than men to have painless progression of heart disease and their pain may not be located on the left side of the chest as it often is in men. Worse yet, women are less likely than men to receive appropriate treatment once a heart attack does occur, according to the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.

While women over age 55 are most at-risk, heart disease is still the third leading cause of death among women ages 25 to 44 and the second leading cause among those 45 to 64 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What you can do to help prevent and treat heart disease?

The good news in all of this is that heart disease is largely preventable by taking care of your heart and reducing the risk factors you can control. Putting age and family history aside, women can decrease their risk of heart disease by 82 percent simply by following healthful eating and exercise habits, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Consider taking these steps to help your heart stay healthy and strong:
Maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Get regular cholesterol screenings €" once every five years for women 45 and older.
Monitor your blood pressure. Check your blood pressure at every doctor€s visit. Target blood pressure is below 120/80. For those with high blood pressure, follow the doctor€s recommendations and be sure to take prescribed medication as directed. High blood pressure can rarely be cured, but it can be controlled with good compliance.
Control your diabetes. If you have diabetes, work with your doctor to keep your blood sugar level under control.
Quit smoking. Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers. But after three years smoke-free, the risk drops to that of a nonsmoker.
Exercise. Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity several times a week can help control cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and blood pressure.
Eat healthy. Pay attention to the food groups €" include plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and avoid excess saturated fats, trans fats, sodium (salt) and sugar.
Keep a healthy weight. Staying within the healthy weight range for your height reduces your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.
Manage stress and anger. Set realistic goals, maintain healthy relationships and use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and stretching, to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Thinking about Valentine€s hearts may be much more romantic, but a healthier lifestyle will do your heart good. And, if you must have chocolate, do so in moderation and make it dark chocolate!

Dr. Edward Koza is the Medical Director of UnitedHealthcare of the Mid-Atlantic.