Heart Yourself—Take Heart Health Awareness Month to Heart

News - February 3, 2016

Heart Health Awarness Month

February has officially served as Heart Health Awareness month since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into existence (as American Heart Month) with Proclamation 3566 back in 1963. At that time, diseases of the heart and circulatory system were responsible for over one-half of American deaths each year; today, that figure is thankfully lower. Nevertheless, one in four deaths among men and women are caused by heart disease annually.

As daunting as this disease is for all Americans, it affects different groups differently. Although it claims 1 in 4 women, the same figure as among men, only 54% of women see it as their number one killer; and it’s the leading cause of death for African-American and white women. And while African-American men are at the highest risk for heart disease, it’s just as much a concern among Hispanics—men and women.

For Mexican-American adults, 33% of men and 31% of women have cardiovascular disease; cardiovascular disease causes more deaths for Hispanic Americans than all forms of cancer combined; Latinos with diabetes had higher rates of heart disease death than those without diabetes; and Hispanic women are significantly less aware than white women that cardiovascular disease is their leading cause of death.

These numbers largely have to do with the hurdles facing most Hispanics when it comes to making lifestyle changes and accessing health care (language barriers, lack of transportation, and lack of health insurance).  Carrying extra weight is also a key risk factor for Hispanics: 80% of Mexican-American men and 76% of women age 20 and older are overweight or obese. (Partly due to diet—one where fatty foods like refried beans and sour cream are still popular.) But there are other factors as well, such as households where both parents have to work, making it hard to find time to exercise or prepare healthier meals.

No matter what your gender or ethnicity, though, there are some things everyone can do to improve their cardiovascular health. Regular physical activity (30 minutes or more most days a week) and a varied diet—more fruits and vegetables, less sodium and saturated and trans fats and cholesterol, and limiting fast and processed foods, and red meat—are all heart-healthy. And getting better sleep. Research has found ties between health problems and a lack of adequate sleep. Chronic insomnia, for example, has been linked to high blood pressure.

And high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart disease and stroke. People with high blood pressure are 4 times more likely to die from a stroke and 3 times more likely to die from heart disease, compared to those with normal blood pressure. One in three American adults has high blood pressure—almost 70 million people. Yet high blood pressure often shows no signs or symptoms, which is why having your blood pressure checked regularly is important. About 2 in 5 African Americans have high blood pressure, but only half have it under control. And pregnant women with conditions such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, pre-term delivery, and high blood pressure face a two-fold increase in heart disease risk.

Control, then, is vital. Which is why the American Heart Association recommends knowing your risk and getting regular checkups. If possible, that means developing a solid relationship with your primary-care physician. Tell them all you know about yourself, your family history, and whatever symptoms you might have. That way, you can move from awareness to prevention.

Toward that end, here are some good cardiovascular-related questions to ask your physician:

  • What are the warning signs or symptoms of heart disease?
  • What tests should I have, and how often, to monitor my risk factors for developing heart disease and stroke?
  • What is the difference between good and bad cholesterol and what should my levels be?
  • What are some of the available treatments for my heart disease-related condition?
  • What are the possible side effects of the medications I’ve been prescribed?
  • What are my risk factors for heart disease?
  • What sort of plan do you recommend for me to lower my risk?
  • Do I need to lose or gain weight for my health? 
  • What is a healthful eating plan for me?
  • What kind of physical exercise is right for me?
  • How do warning signs of heart disease differ for men and women?
  • How will menopause affect my heart?
  • What kinds of tests are most appropriate for women?

As President Barack Obama said in his annual Heart Health Awareness campaign: “Heart disease must be addressed with urgency.” So. Take it personally.