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The best way to prevent heart disease is through self-care. The American Heart Association reports that up to 80% of heart disease is preventable through lifestyle changes

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get regular exercise – the AHA recommends 40 minutes of physical activity, three times a week.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and weight.

In movies, men get heart attacks, women get their hearts broken. But reality is harsher – according to the American Heart Association, 1 in 3 women in the United States die of heart disease each year, making it the leading cause of death. (By comparison, 1 in 31 American women die annually of breast cancer.)

And yet, heart disease can’t shake the image of an “old man’s disease.” More than half of women who die suddenly from coronary artery disease weren’t receiving treatment or didn’t report symptoms, and women are less likely than men to survive their first heart attack.

Most women develop heart disease due to atherosclerosis, a condition caused when plaque builds up inside the arteries, narrowing them and restricting blood flow. If a blood clot forms in the arteries, it can result in a heart attack or stroke.

Heart disease in women also commonly appears as congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, and heart valve problems.

Like men, women’s main risk factors for heart disease include congenital heart conditions, family history of heart disease, aging, obesity, diabetes, overeating, physical inactivity and smoking.

Hormonal changes are another risk factor for women. Women who take birth control pills may have higher blood pressure and face increased risk of heart disease if they also smoke. Changes during menopause have also been linked to increased heart attack risk.

Women tend to experience different symptoms of coronary heart disease and heart attacks than men. Most people think of chest pains and cold sweats as heart attack symptoms, but women usually experience back pain, jaw pain, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, or fatigue, sometimes weeks before a heart attack occurs. It’s easy to mistake these symptoms for other conditions, such as a toothache or upset stomach.

Research is still being done to learn why women experience different symptoms, but learning to recognize them and seeking medical attention immediately can make a critical difference.

Apart from misperceptions of heart disease, another reason women may ignore symptoms is a tendency to put their family’s health care needs ahead of their own. Also, some health care providers may fail to recognize symptoms of heart disease more commonly experienced by women.

Even if you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease or take prescriptions to manage cholesterol or high blood pressure, healthier lifestyle changes can still make a difference.

It’s important to advocate for your own health, just as you would for your family. Schedule annual examinations with your physician. Discuss your health history, risk factors, and when you should be screened for indicators of heart disease.

Finally, trust your intuition. If you’ve been experiencing these symptoms and strongly feel like something is wrong, seek emergency medical help immediately.

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