February is Heart Health Month, and this month in particular is the ideal time to focus on women’s hearts. Why? Because symptoms of a heart attack in women can look and feel far different from what you might expect. That’s true to such an extent that heart attacks are often called the silent killer in women.First, you need to understand exactly what a heart attack is and how common they are.  According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack strikes someone about every 43 seconds. A heart attack happens when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or totally cut off. This happens because the arteries that supply the heart with blood can slowly narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances like plaque. 

It makes sense then that chest pain is the most widely recognized symptom of a heart attack, and has been described as an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or fullness in your chest. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back or neck is another common symptom. While these are the most common symptoms for both genders, women are far more likely than men to experience additional, different symptoms, such as shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Lightheadedness or fainting are also red flags. 

While men who experience common symptoms assume it’s a heart attack, women are far less likely to do so, often attributing symptoms to acid reflux, normal signs of aging or even the flu. The reasons for that are many. There is a misnomer that only men or predominantly men have heart attacks. That’s dangerous because heart disease is actually the number one killer of women in the United States. Other reasons include a stereotypically female tendency to downplay our own health and prioritize that of other family members, or to put our health on the “backburner” as we tackle daily life. 

Fortunately, there are many things that both women and men can do to reduce their risk of a heart attack. First, if you smoke, quit. Just one year after quitting, you’ll reduce your risk by 50 percent. Next, start an exercise program (with the approval of you physician). Walking just 30 minutes a day can significantly improve your heart health. Diet plays a huge role in heart disease. Make modifications to reduce fat and cholesterol and increase consumption of heat-healthy foods like leafy green vegetables, whole grains, berries and nuts, fatty fish, and yes, even dark chocolate (in moderation!).

By making minor lifestyle changes and knowing when to get help if you are experiencing symptoms, you can make tremendous strides in keeping your heart healthy. It’s the perfect Valentine’s Day gift to yourself and to those who love you.

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