After an unusually cold, snowy winter here in Tidewater, spring has finally arrived. The garden shops are crowded, winter coats are packed away, and our parks and playgrounds are once again full of activity. It is the perfect time of year to get and stay healthy, and there is no better way to do it than to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Cardiovascular disease—in the form of heart attacks, strokes, and congestive heart failure—leads to more deaths each year in the U.S. than any other cause. It is well known that smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, and high cholesterol in the diet directly contribute to the these problems. And because we have control over what we eat, whether we smoke, and how much we exercise, each and every one of us can impact our own individual risk of heart disease.
Unfortunately, half of all men and two-thirds of all women who die from a heart attack did not even know that they had heart disease. So, although we have developed many advanced ways to treat people with heart disease, the real key to lowering the death rates from heart disease lies in prevention of heart disease, and prevention starts with education. To dispel the myths and raise awareness of heart disease as the number-one killer of women, the American Heart Association created Go Red for Women, a program designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health. And Bon Secours Heart & Vascular Institute has joined with the AHA to educate the community about this silent killer in our midst.
For instance, although heart disease kills more women than breast cancer and lung cancer combined (1 out of every 4 deaths), only half the women recognize it as their number-one killer. And although 2 out of 3 of women know that chest pain is a symptom of heart disease, only 1 out of 10 knows that shortness of breath and nausea are also symptoms. In fact, whereas men usually have chest pain and difficulty breathing as primary symptoms of a heart attack, women not only have these symptoms but, more frequently than men, have pain in their arms, neck, shoulders, and back, as well as fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. Heart disease is no longer thought to be exclusive to men. Over the past decade, younger and younger women—even those in their 30s and 40s—have been known to suffer heart attacks. In fact, women under the age of 55 who smoke have a seven times greater risk of developing heart disease than those who do not smoke. And only about 30 percent of women exercise regularly.
Virginia has the 25th highest death rate from cardiovascular disease in the country, and with 30 percent of heart attack victims being between the ages of 29 and 64, this is no longer a disease of an older demographic. It is never too early—and never too late—to start to live a heart-healthy life.
Remember, good health starts with a strong relationship with a primary care doctor. If you don’t have one, get one. If you have one, make yearly visits, and constantly be on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of heart disease in yourself and your family and friends. Know your blood pressure, and consider testing for diabetes if you are overweight. Also, have your cholesterol and triglycerides checked regularly. Become your own health advocate and monitor and reduce any risk factors you may have.
Dr. Robert Lancey is a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon and serves as the medical director of the Bon Secours Heart & Vascular Institute, serving residents of the greater Hampton Roads area. He has recently been appointed to the board of directors of the Hampton Roads chapter of the American Heart Association.