February is Heart Month: Love Your Heart
February is American Heart Month as requested by Congress and first proclaimed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 30, 1963. At that time, about 50 percent of the deaths in the United States were caused by heart disease. Considerable progress has been made since then, thanks to widely adopted lifestyle changes, such as smoking cessation, more effective treatments for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, technological advances to treat blocked arteries and damaged heart muscle, and better systems of care. Yet today, cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of death in the United States, and the rate of decline in the annual death rate from heart disease has plateaued in recent years.
Heart disease is also the number one cause of death in women, higher even than cancer. While 1 in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 dies of heart disease. Ninety percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease. Symptoms of a heart attack tend to differ in women than men, and include shortness of breath, back pain, jaw pain, and nausea, leading to delays in seeking life saving medical care. The American Heart Association’s national movement to end heart disease and stroke in women, Go Red for Women, highlights the need to raise awareness of cardiovascular disease among women, and to take steps to prevent and treat it.
There is much we can do as individuals and as a society to prevent heart disease ad improve outcomes. Eat a nutritious diet. Read food labels. Watch your calories. Lower your intake of sugar, as is found in many sweetened beverages. Obesity is a cause of diabetes, and diabetes is a leading cause of heart disease. Be careful about fatty foods, as these increase blood cholesterol levels and can lead to blockages in your heart’s arteries. Know your blood pressure, and if it is high, seek treatment from your health care provider. Recent guidelines have changed the definition of high blood pressure to a level greater than 120 over 80, because the risk of heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease increases when blood pressure is higher than that. If you have high blood pressure, be careful about salt and avoid the salt shaker, and limit foods enriched with sodium such as processed foods, canned soups, and even bread. Get out and exercise. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking briskly, five times per week has benefits. Don’t smoke, and if you do, try to stop on your own or seek professional help.
As a society, we have benefitted from policies that limit smoking, including smoke free restaurants and other public places. Heart disease affects all of us. It is more prevalent in socioeconomically depressed areas. We need to ensure that all of our communities have access to healthy foods and safe places to exercise. Importantly, our common goal should be to make sure that all Americans have access to affordable health care, so that cardiovascular and other diseases are identified early and treated effectively.
Dr. Mark Creager is the director of the Heart and Vascular Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and a Past President of the American Heart Association. Learn more about the Heart and Vascular Center here.