Today marks the start of American Heart Month. February is all about raising awareness about cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attacks and strokes. Heart disease kills approximately one woman every minute. That’s right. The condition takes more women’s lives than all other cancers combined. It’s nothing to take lightly and yet, only one in five American women consider heart disease their biggest health threat.
While great strides have been made in heart disease awareness, there’s still a long way to go. So to help shed some light on the issue and learn what we can do to maximize our heart health, we spoke with Dr. Michael Fenster, cardiologist, professional chef, and author of The Fallacy of the Calorie ($15, amazon.com). He gave us his top tips to give our heart a boost and they’re easier than you might think!
Know your risk of heart disease
It’s easy to write off heart disease as something that happens to someone else—someone older, heavier, a man—but it can happen to anyone. “For a long time, heart disease was considered a man’s disease because early studies simply didn’t include women so there wasn’t much talk about women’s risk,” says Fenster. Fortunately we know better now and can better assess our risk. First, Fenster suggests checking into your family history of heart disease which can give some insight on your personal risk. Then, consider the controllable risk factors like smoking, carrying extra weight, and not getting enough physical activity, and make lifestyle changes accordingly. All of these can increase your chance of cardiovascular distress.
Know the signs of a heart attack
The media has painted a pretty narrow picture of heart attack symptoms: a man clutching his chest before collapsing to the ground. While not entirely inaccurate, heart attacks present themselves in all kinds of ways and the symptoms can differ between men and women. “Women are actually more likely to experience symptoms that are unrelated to chest pain,” points out Fenster. As Elizabeth Banks hilariously points out in this PSA clip for Go Red for Women, women can sometimes overlook common symptoms, such as pain in the jaw or stomach, shortness of breath without any chest pain, and lightheadedness, because they think it’s something less serious.
Change your diet
“That old saying, ‘The way to somebody’s heart is through their stomach’, applies literally when it comes to heart health,” says Fenster, adding that diets high in processed foods are some of the most dangerous when it comes to the inflammation they cause in the body. According to the American Heart Association, diets high in cholesterol and trans fat can raise blood cholesterol, putting you at a higher risk of heart disease. But balanced diets low in sodium and added sugar, and high in fiber may help decrease women’s risk of heart disease.
Carrying extra weight and not getting enough exercise are two big factors that raise one’s risk of cardiovascular trouble. “Exercise is majorly important to heart health,” says Fenster. “Moving your body, even for 30 minutes every day, is critical to getting fresh blood pumping through your heart.” He adds that exercise can help you get rid of any extra weight that makes your heart work harder than it has to.
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your heart, so it’s important to keep it in check. “Stress can absolutely precede coronary events,” says Fenster. “Whatever the stressors in your life are, you really want to try to minimize them and get your body out of that high strung mode.” What stresses someone you know may have little to no effect on you, though. So figuring out what causes you the most stress and finding ways to reduce it, such as exercise or meditation, will cut your heart some serious slack.
This Friday, Feb. 5, is National Wear Red Day. Join the movement by wearing your favorite red sweater or strutting in a pair of red pumps to raise awareness for Go Red for Women. Then, schedule an appointment with your doctor for a full check up to get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked, as well as have your doctor look for any signs of heart disease. Use the hashtag #GoRedWearRed to help spread the word and encourage other women in your life to get their hearts checked, too.