Take Your Heart Health Into Your Control this Heart Month

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This article references the risks for and outcomes of heart disease in binary gender terms based on research that links heart disease impact to biological sex. We acknowledge the importance of all people to know their risk for heart disease and how to support their heart health.

February is American Heart Health Month, an opportunity to learn more about cardiovascular health. Not surprisingly, the heart is the most important muscular organ. Its role is to pump blood to the rest of the body, allowing organs like the brain to function. When the heart muscle is in poor health, its ability to both receive and pump out blood to the rest of the body is reduced or stopped.

In the U.S., heart disease is the number one cause of death through incidents like heart attack and stroke. While some causes of heart disease are out of our control, there are many lifestyle choices we can make that improve heart health.

Taking heart health into control means knowing:

  • What is heart disease and personal risk factors
  • Steps to improve heart health
  • Signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke
  • How to be an advocate for heart health

This month The Whole U welcomed Dr. Kevin O’Brien and Dr. Ruchi Kapoor from the UW Medicine Heart Institute at a webinar discussion about heart health. For those who couldn’t join us, we’ve summarized the major takeaways and invite you to watch the recording.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions that limit the hearts’ ability to function properly. Some heart disease conditions are related to plaque buildup, while some are related to how well the arteries within your heart are working. Symptoms often look the same and the effect of these conditions is poor blood flow to the heart muscle.

Coronary artery disease, also known as ischemic heart disease, is the most common type of heart disease in the United States. It can present in a few variations, such as the gradual narrowing of the heart vessels due to plaque buildup overtime or the localized narrowing within the heart vessels caused by a larger plaque blockage.

Dr. Kapoor discusses the variations in detail in the webinar recording. Click to time stamp 19:53 to follow along.

Who is at risk for heart disease and what causes it?

It’s a common assumption that heart disease is more prevalent in males, but across the board women are more likely to get heart disease. Heart disease also disparately impacts those in the Black and Asian communities as compared to Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites.

Your personal risk depends on a variety of factors including family history, lifestyle, ethnicity, and gender. The most common risk factors are summarized in the chart to the right.

Women are more likely to have:

  • Later onset of cardiovascular disease
  • Increased likelihood to be hypertensive (age > 65)
  • Worse blood pressure control (age > 65)
  • Increased risk from diabetes and obesity
  • Increased risk from psychosocial stressors

How can someone reduce the risk for heart disease?

There are many lifestyle adjustments we can make to improve heart health. In fact, 80% of cardiovascular disease in women in preventable.

The following is a list of ways to improve heart health and reduce risk of heart disease:

  • Stop smoking and vaping (or don’t start).
  • Exercise: 150 minutes/week of moderate intensity (or 75 minutes/week of vigorous intensity). Strength training 2-3x/week.
  • Diet: rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber. Avoid saturated and trans-fat, sodium and added sugar.
  • Blood pressure: goal < 120/80 mmHg with weight control, low sodium, increasing physical activity.
  • Know your numbers: BP, glucose, cholesterol, kidney function.

What are the symptoms of heart attack and stroke?

With heart disease being so prevalent, it’s important that everyone be well educated in recognizing the signs and symptoms of heart attack and stroke, and how these vary between men and women.

Heart attack symptoms: Heart attacks present different depending on the person. It’s possible to have all or none of the symptoms. Dr. O’Brien highlights the importance of urgency during a suspected heart attack, saying “time is muscle.” The number of heart muscle cells that survive after a heart attack declines within hours from the onset of symptoms. Anyone who may be having a heart attack needs medical attention as quickly as possible. The first three hours are critical.

Common symptoms in men:

  • Chest discomfort (can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain)
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body (arms, back, neck, jaw, stomach)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting

Common symptoms in women:

  • Chest discomfort (can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain)
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body (arms, back, neck, jaw, stomach)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Fainting
  • Indigestion
  • Extreme fatigue

Stroke symptoms: A stroke occurs when something blocks blood supply to part of the brain or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. Heart disease increases your risk for stroke because plaque buildup in the arteries can block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain.

In recognizing signs and symptoms of stroke, the acronym BE FAST is your guide.

B – Balance – Is the person suddenly having trouble with balance and coordination?
E – Eyes – Is the person experiencing sudden blurred or double vision or sudden vision loss without pain?
F – Face Dropping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Is the person’s smile lopsided or uneven?
A – Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S – Speech – Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a sentence.
T – Time to call 911 – With any of these symptoms, even if they go away, call 911 and get them to a hospital immediately.

When someone experiences a stroke, it is vital that they seek medical help right away. After three hours without treatment there is little brain cell recovery.

What is the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest?

Misunderstanding about cardiac arrest and heart attack has been more common lately following the recent incident in which NFL player Damar Hamilton suffered a cardiac arrest during a play-off game. For a quick overview of the differences, Dr. Kapoor explains:

Heart attack: A circulation problem, due to poor blood flow. Blood flow slows considerably or stops to the heart muscle. Timeline in response to a heart attack is very important, attention is needed within the immediate hours.

Cardiac arrest: An electrical problem, the heart muscle stops working, and your entire body is not getting blood flow, including the brain. Timeline in response to cardiac arrest is paramount, you can only go a few minutes without blood flow to the entire body.

How to spread awareness for heart health

A 2012 study showed that 81% of women would call 911 if someone else was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, but only 65% of women would call 911 if they thought they were experiencing a heart attack. Women are less likely to listen to their bodies in these cases for many reasons, so it’s important that we all become advocates for heart health – especially when so much of the risk for heart disease can be reduced through lifestyle choices.

You can be a heart health advocate by:

  • Learning CPR.
  • Telling your loved ones, especially women, about the risks for heart disease and symptoms of heart attack and stroke.
  • Believe the data. We know just how prevalent heart disease is and how likely women are to ignore or be unaware of its symptoms. Trust the scientific community and share their research.
  • Get involved with organizations supporting heart health.
  • Participate in the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk.
  • Talk to your doctors about your heart health and know your numbers.