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Do you know the signs of a heart emergency?

Know the signs to look for in men and women this Heart Health Month

They say that when it comes to matters of the heart, men and women differ in many ways. This might or might not be true when it comes to romance. When it comes to the hard science of heart health, however, this sentiment is a matter of fact.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women, but their experience during a heart-health crisis can differ dramatically. This is why it’s so critical for women to be mindful of what their hearts are telling them – not just during Heart Health Month, but throughout the year.

Women of color should be keenly aware of their heart health. Research shows that heart disease is more prevalent among Black women than White women. Black women live with almost two times the risk of stroke than White women, and they are more likely to die at an earlier age when compared to women of other ethnicities.

Signs to look for

Symptoms of heart disease can vary. Chest pain is the most frequent tell-tale sign. But heart attack symptoms for women are more likely to include other sensations, some of which we don’t commonly associate with heart stress:

  • Discomfort (often described as tightness or pressure) in the chest or other areas of the upper body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Back or jaw pain

However, no one should be content waiting for indications of a health crisis. Proactively monitoring heart health can help prevent heart attacks and strokes before they happen. Heart health begins with paying careful attention to these signs:

  • Healthy breathing. If you have a healthy heart, you will typically breathe normally during mild exercise, such as walking, riding a bike or swimming. If you have difficulty breathing or experience shortness of breath, especially while your body is at rest or performing little activity, this can be a sign that your heart isn’t working as well as it should.
  • Energy level. Be aware of any changes in your stamina, endurance, or energy levels with exercise. You’ll feel more energized when your heart is working normally and your body is getting the proper nutrients. Constant, extreme fatigue is frequently a sign of an unhealthy heart.
  • Family history. It is very important to know your family history. This information can help you determine your risk level for heart-related diseases and help you be on the lookout for symptoms.

If you feel something is wrong, don’t wait to act. Any time you experience worrying symptoms, you should visit your primary care physician for further evaluation. Even if you don’t think the matter is serious, it could be. So let your doctor know. If your symptoms require further evaluation, your doctor may need to refer you to a cardiologist.

Building a stronger heart

Heart health isn’t just about monitoring. It’s also about creating. Everyone can take proactive steps to build a stronger heart and lower the risk of heart disease.

  • A healthy diet is the best weapon against heart disease. Choose nutrient-rich foods and a diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, and nuts. Limit your intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats. Maintaining a healthy diet might seem more of a challenge when we are isolated at home and craving some stress relief. But implementing some simple, strategic changes can help curb your appetite. Plan and prep your meals in advance. If your meals are already made for the day or week, you may be less tempted to order takeout or pick up those snacks throughout the day. Have carrots, celery, fruit, and other healthy options on hand for those moments when you crave a treat.
  • Getting regular exercise is just as important. Physical activity will help you maintain a healthy weight and can lower your blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels. More than that, exercise will also make you feel better, and that’s important for good heart health too. Stress has been linked to risk factors for heart disease and stroke. It’s impossible to avoid stress altogether, but regular exercise will help you to manage it before it affects your overall health.

Staying motivated to exercise can already be a challenge. But keep in mind that exercise can and should be fun. Heart-pumping activities can include walking, swimming, ice skating, rowing, biking, hiking, skiing and even dancing!

The goal is simple: get your heart rate going for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate activity, five days a week. Here’s a pro tip that you might not realize: you can split up this time into 10-minute chunks of activity spread throughout the day and still see the same benefits.

Other fundamental heart-health strategies require less activity but just as much commitment.

  • Don’t smoke. Cigarettes don’t just damage your lungs and esophagus. They can also increase your risk for heart disease. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do, quitting now will lower your risk for heart disease. Explore these tips to help you kick the habit.
  • Know your numbers. Getting a health screening is a great way to see a snapshot of some key health factors, like cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. This is vital information that will help you gauge the next steps you need to take. By living a healthy lifestyle, you can help keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels normal and lower your risk for heart disease and heart attack.

Getting in the race is the first step toward winning the race

The first steps toward better heart health shouldn’t be difficult. Don’t set yourself up for failure by aiming for lofty ideals – set realistic targets instead. Start small and focus on making better choices in your everyday routines. Make daily or weekly fitness goals and hold yourself accountable by keeping track of your physical activity, get an accountability partner or sign up for virtual fitness classes.

Remember the old fable of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady wins the race – and it also strengthens the heart.

Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD
Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD

Medical Director

Anuradha Rao-Patel, MD, is a medical director at Blue Cross NC. She 'ss responsible for the evaluation of the medical necessity, appropriateness and efficiency of the use of health care services, procedures, prescription drugs and facilities under the provisions of the applicable health benefits plan.

Before joining Blue Cross NC, she worked in a private practice doing acute and chronic pain management.

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