Celebrating American Heart Month

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

A year ago in February, I had the distinguished honor and privilege of receiving the Red Dress Award  on behalf of the Office of Research on Women’s Health. The award honors those who advance the fight against heart disease. Much work has been done in this area by NIH’s Institutes, Offices, and Centers, especially the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

Unfortunately, coronary heart disease—the most common type of heart disease—is still the number one killer of women in the United States, with 1 out of 4 women dying from this condition.1 Sex differences do exist when it comes to heart disease. Women are more likely to die within a year of having a heart attack and symptoms in women are often different than in men.2

Awareness campaigns such as NHLBI’s The Heart Truth and the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women  have helped to educate the public at large. These and other campaigns have raised awareness on risk factors and prevention  strategies for heart disease—and made it clear that heart disease is not only a man’s disease

In the area of prevention and awareness, NHLBI has created some fantastic videos to educate the public about risk factors  and heart attack warning symptoms . These are great tools that can be shared with patients, families, and advocates.

As women, I believe we have the power to mitigate heart disease. These are some of the risk factors that can be addressed through lifestyle changes or with help from your health care provider:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Diabetes and prediabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome

The last item on the list, metabolic syndrome, is a group of traits and medical conditions linked to obesity and overweight that places individuals at risk for both coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Keep in mind that every risk factor above counts and having more than one can increase your chance of developing heart disease.

If all of this seems overwhelming, one of the best things you can do during American Heart Month is to find your personal risk for heart disease by visiting your health care provider for a checkup. Let your provider know you want to know your risk for heart disease and don’t hesitate to ask questions, including what you can do to improve your heart health.

Small steps may help you get started on lifestyle changes, but also keep in mind that no one is perfect. Many of us have been guilty of taking the elevator when we could have taken the steps or trying that delicious but unhealthy pastry (I know that at times I’ve been guilty of both!). The Heart Truth’s 28 Days to a Healthy Heart  (PDF) provides a daily challenge that many of us can aim for during American Hearth Month.

Please remember that you don’t have to go on this journey alone. Many health professionals as well as family, friends, and coworkers can help you along the road to change. What’s important is not giving up. It’s vital to take action to protect your heart’s health. Please do it for yourself and your loved ones.

1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart Disease in Women. Accessed 1/15/2018.
2. Harvard Health Publishing/Harvard Medical School. Gender matters: Heart Disease Risk in Women. Accessed 1/16/18.

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