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Question:
My mother recently had a heart attack and thankfully she survived and is recovering. Now I am worried that I may be at risk for heart problems. Should I be worried about heart disease as a young woman? I am in my 20s, but my doctor has told me that I am a little overweight and with my family history, I may be at risk for having problems down the line? Is this true?
Answer:
I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s illness, but I am very happy that she survived. Unfortunately, as a women we need to be very worried about heart disease. In fact, approximately one in FOUR women in the U.S. die yearly from heart disease!  To make things more alarming, if you combined ALL the women in the U.S.  that died of ALL cancers in a year, it still doesn’t add up to the total of women who die each year in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease (heart disease and strokes combined)!
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And even though heart disease can affect both genders, more women die of heart attacks than men. WomenSymptomosBeing a woman of color (African american/Latina/Hispanic) puts you at higher risk than Caucasian women, since women of color tend to have more risk factors (including lack of physical activity, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.) With these alarming facts, it makes you scared enough to want to start taking care of your body at an earlier age to prevent from being a statistic later on.

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There are many different types of heart disease, so lets try to simplify them for this discussion. The most common type and leading cause of heart attacks is Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). With CAD, the blood vessels of the heart become filled with fatty plaque that eventually harden and narrow the blood vessels of the heart, making it harder for the heart to get the blood supply that it needs. This can lead to the uncomfortable pressure or squeezing pain in a person’s chest which is called ANGINA (pronounced Ann-jina). This pain can also occur in the neck, jaw, arms, shoulders or back. Angina can also present as an upset stomach in women as well. Having angina means you are more likely to have a Heart Attack. CAD

An actual heart attack occurs when the blood vessel/s leading to the heart are so severely obstructed or completely blocked, leading to lack of blood flow to the heart for greater than 20 minutes. That is why it is so important to live a healthy lifestyle with diet and exercise to help prevent the initial plaque/fatty deposits from occurring that can lead to this horrible event.

I’m sure you’ve also heard of family members or family friends who have been diagnosed with HEART FAILURE, which occurs when the heart muscles are not strong enough to pump blood the way it should. This then leads to decreased blood flow to other organs in the body. These people usually complain of feeling winded or short of breath, complain of  fatigue and can even experience leg swelling.

Others may have irregular heart beats or rhythms, which are known as ARRHYTHMIAS (pronounced uh-rith-me-uhs).Some can be harmless, but others can cause one to feel faint, lightheaded and can be dangerous. As we get older we are more prone to these irregular heart beats, which can lead to strokes/passing out/ or heart failure symptoms down the line. With that being said, it is important to follow up with your doctor if you ever experience these irregular beats or are diagnosed with one.

So how do we lower our risk factors for heart disease?  Unfortunately genetics is something that can not be altered, but we can work on taking steps to lead to healthier lifestyles to prevent heart disease. This includes:

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1. Making healthier food choices- eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains; and consuming less red meat, salt, food high in cholesterol and high fat products and eating less processed sugars.

2. Being more active- whether its running, cycing, walking, swimming, etc. Exercising on a regular basis for at least 30-60 mins a day can help.

3. Not Smoking- This unhealthy habit is usually one of the hardest habits to break, but its worth it to significantly reduce risk for heart attacks and strokes.

4. Be aware of your numbers which include:

* Blood pressure- ideal blood pressure should be less than 120/80. Starting from a young age, your blood pressure should be checked every one to two years, unless you already have a known diagnosis of high blood pressure. In that case, you would need to have your blood pressure checked more regularly.

* Cholesterol- total cholesterol should be less than 200mg/dL.  HDL, the “good” cholesterol that helps prevent your arteries from clogging, should be lower than 60mg/dL. The “H” in HDL should remind you that this level should be HIGH.  LDL, the “bad” cholesterol that clogs your arteries, should be lower than 100mg/dL. The “L” in LDL should remind you that it should be LOWER.

Lastly, triglycerides, a form of fat in your blood, should be under 150mg/dL. Be sure to have these checked regularly by your physician. You can go over with your doctor how often you will need these levels checked since we all have different family histories and are in different states of health.

Important fact: most people begin developing these fatty deposits in their arteries as early as age 20! So take charge of your body and know your numbers!

5. Have your blood sugar checked- since diabetes increases your risk for heart disease.

6. Maintain a healthy weight for your body- Diet and exercise are the key to this.

7. Limit your alcohol intake- one should not be consuming more than 1 drink/day (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of liquor).

8. Stress management- the mental stress that we don’t learn to cope with can greatly affect our physical health, so find ways to

de-stress (i.e. meditation, exercise, writing, etc)

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Taking these healthy steps to improving your health can save your life, so begin with small changes and it will become a way of life. Also realize genetics and family history do contribute to heart health, so if your dad or brother had a heart attack before or at age 55, or your mother or sister had a heart attack before or at the age of 65, you are at risk for a heart attack as well. Knowing this information can allow you to take the appropriate steps to making lifestyle changes now, to prevent these medical issues down the line. Knowledge is power, so take control of your health and educate yourself on your body and your numbers!

– Dr. Melissa Charles

 

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