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February is a month that’s all about the heart. No, not just Valentine’s Day. I’m talking about American Heart Month. Not too long ago it was thought that heart disease was a problem for men. Warnings for men to recognize chest pain and left arm pain helped educate us on the dreadful “widow maker” heart attacks that had the power to kill.

As it turns out, heart disease isn’t just about men. In the U.S., it’s a lady killer. More deadly than all forms of cancer combined, heart disease is the number one cause of death for women. And it’s commonly misunderstood, making it even more dangerous to women.

In honor of American Heart Month and of women everywhere, be sure to educate yourself. First, let’s dispel a few myths.

The biggest threat to women is breast cancer. While breast cancer is a very real threat, heart disease is far more deadly. It causes one in three deaths each year, which is the equivalent of one woman dying every minute of every day. By comparison, one in 31 women dies from breast cancer each year. So we should be concerned about both.

I’m too young for heart disease. The truth is, heart disease is an equal opportunity disease, striking women of all ages. In younger women who smoke and take birth control pills, their risk is increased by 20 percent. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise also contribute to risk in young and middle-aged women that increases over time. And even if you lead a perfectly healthy lifestyle, if you were born with an underlying heart condition, you may be at increased risk at any age.

It doesn’t affect women who are fit. While being fit is certainly important for lowering risk, it’s not a sure thing. You also need to be aware of your cholesterol level and blood pressure, and ensure you avoid unhealthy habits like smoking.

Learning the Signs of Heart Attack in Women

Signs of heart disease in women are often different than in men. Plus they can differ from woman to woman, so it’s important to know as much as you can. Signs can be indistinct, causing women to dismiss their symptoms as something else, like acid reflux or early stages of flu. Please learn to pay attention to these signs, many of which may begin slowly and last for hours, days, or weeks before a heart attack:

  • Shortness of breath may begin as much as a few weeks before a woman experiences a heart attack
  • Pain in the lower or upper back can indicate stress to the heart muscle
  • Jaw pain, especially if it occurs during exercise, may be a sign
  • Nausea and flu-like symptoms can occur days or even weeks before a heart attack
  • Excessive sweating and lightheadedness also can be a signal
  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and then comes back

Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel quite right and are experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911. If you are having a heart attack, it’s crucial to prevent damage to your heart as quickly as possible. If you aren’t, then consider yourself smart for having been safe rather than sorry.

What Can You Do to Protect Your Heart?

The list is simple and probably not too surprising…but don’t underestimate its importance.

  • Quit smoking.
  • Exercise (aim for 30 minutes a day).
  • Consult your doctor to discuss your current risk profile (cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, family history).
  • Evaluate your diet.

Give Yourself the Gift of Information

The American Heart Association website has a wealth of information on preventing heart disease identifying risk factors, and all the signs you should know to protect yourself. Be sure to educate yourself, whether you’re a woman or someone who cares about a woman. It might just be the best gift you ever give yourself for Valentine’s Day.