The most common advice for lowering your risk of heart disease is pretty standard: Eat healthy and exercise often. Many people assume that if they do those two things and make other healthy lifestyle choices, they’ll be set, especially if they’re on the younger side. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. If fact, many young people don’t think much about their heart health at all, but younger women do have heart attacks, and many times, there aren’t symptoms beforehand. The truth is, being fit doesn’t *always* protect you from all the various health risks out there (if you need proof, just look at what happened to Bob Harper a couple of weeks ago), which is why it’s important to stay informed about both your own health and new medical research. When it comes to your heart health, here’s what you need to know — even if you’re relatively fit.
1. Younger women are still at risk for heart disease and heart attacks. It’s extremely important to survival for the symptoms of a heart attack to be noticed and treated immediately. Sadly, research shows that younger women are not as aware of the symptoms to look for and that they can even manifest differently than they do in men. Dr. Jennifer Haythe, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at Columbia and co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health, says that “typical symptoms of a heart attack in both men and women are chest pain, jaw pain, arm pain, shortness of breath, and stomach discomfort.” There are some symptoms that are much more prevalent in women, though. “Women are more likely to feel atypical symptoms like lightheadedness, fatigue, and indigestion,” she says. If you feel anything like this, definitely ask for help ASAP.
2. There are risk factors that have nothing to do with your lifestyle. It’s true that diet and exercise can make a big difference in lowering your risk of heart problems. That being said, there are several factors that can’t be changed. “Age, ethnicity, and family history are fixed, non-modifiable risk factors,” explains Dr. Haythe. “A strong family history of coronary artery disease places an individual at a very high risk of developing heart disease themselves.” So if you have family members who have dealt with heart issues, it’s a smart idea to be extra vigilant about your cardiovascular health. While it’s important to make an effort to make good lifestyle choices no matter what fixed risk factors you have, Dr. Haythe points out that “if you have a genetic predisposition for heart disease, it is even more important to pay close attention to lifestyle choices like exercise, diet, smoking cessation, as well as management of conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.”
3. If you think something’s up, be firm with your doctor about it. One recent study found that women are less likely to have their heart health checked, which is very concerning, since more women die per year from heart disease than men. Yup, really. According to Dr. Haythe, the first thing you should do is educate yourself about your risk. Find out about your family history, and get checked by your doctor if you think it’s necessary. “Insist on a thorough exam and risk assessment, particularly if you have a strong family history,” suggests Dr. Haythe. “Every year, your check up should include an assessment of blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight. An EKG and stress test may be indicated depending on risk and symptoms,” she adds. If your doctor isn’t doing all of these basic tests at your yearly checkup, it’s worth it to be resolute about getting them or find a new physician. After all, you only get one heart, right?
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