Women are at increased risk for heart disease. More women died from complications of heart disease in 2000 than from all cancers and strokes combined. February is heart month and we are stressing the need for women and men to take the time to take care of themselves.

What is heart disease? Coronary heart disease is the most common form of heart disease. It is a disorder of the blood vessels of the heart that can result in a heart attack. A heart attack can occur when a blood vessel becomes blocked. A blockage prevents oxygen and other vital nutrients from getting to the heart. Other cardiovascular diseases include stroke, high blood pressure, and angina (chest pain).

Once you are diagnosed with heart disease, you always have it. You can’t be cured, but you can treat it. More importantly, you can prevent this disease from ever occurring by being aware of your risk factors and taking steps to reduce them. Risk factors are habits or conditions that can make a person more likely to develop a disease or increase the likelihood of the disease getting worse. Risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being overweight, physical inactivity and diabetes. Other risk factors include your gender, age and genetics. Gender, age and your family history can’t be changed but you can do something about the other risk factors.

If you smoke, quit. Yes, to quit smoking is challenging, but there are smoking cessation groups, the patch, gum and even medication that can help you kick the habit. If you are overweight, losing weight may help you reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol. Losing just 10 pounds may be enough to make a difference. You don’t need to take a high intensity aerobics class to lose the weight either. The difference can be made in making healthy food choices, controlling portion sizes and simple activities such as walking. Being overweight also increases your chances of developing diabetes. Look at the difference you can make in some simple changes! You won’t see changes overnight, but, over a period of time, you’ll notice how good you feel and others may comment on how good you look.

High blood pressure is often referred to as the “silent killer”. There are no symptoms of high blood pressure. A desirable blood pressure is less than 120/80. What do these numbers mean? The first number is called the systolic blood pressure and is the force when the heart beats. The second number or the diastolic blood pressure is the pressure existing in the arteries between heartbeats.

You should know the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke. In either case, get help by calling 911. Please don’t drive yourself or have someone drive you to the hospital. If you develop sudden numbness or weakness on one side of your body, slurring of speech, sudden confusion, dizziness or trouble walking, get help. You may be having a stroke. If you experience an uncomfortable chest discomfort, such as an elephant sitting on you, pain in your jaw or down your arm, shortness of breath, or breaking out in a cold sweat, you may be having a heart attack. Again, get help by calling 911. Paramedics and emergency room doctors and nurses know what to do and can help you best when you call for help.

So what should you do with all this information? Get your blood pressure checked. You can have it checked at your next doctor’s appointment, at Public Health, or at one of the many blood pressure screenings done in the county. Talk with your doctor about your cholesterol and a desirable number for you. Your doctor can also get you information about quitting smoking, dietary changes you can make and simple exercises that can make a difference in preventing or reducing your chances of developing heart disease.

You may be thinking that all of this is tough work. You’re right. You have a heart and it’s worth taking care of. It may not be easy but the rewards are long-lasting. You can do it! We’re wishing you success.