I know I usually keep things lighthearted around here, but today I want to talk about something serious- heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of both men and women in the U.S. In fact, 1 out of 3 deaths in the U.S. is caused by heart disease and stroke. Think about that for a minute- 1 out of 3. That’s not just scary, it’s terrifying. But there is cause for hope- many of these deaths can be prevented through education and action. February is American Heart Month, so let’s brush up on the warning signs of heart disease and tips on how to prevent it.

We’ve all seen heart attacks on TV shows- someone suddenly clutches their chest, cries out in pain, and falls over. But not all heart attacks are that dramatic and the signs can be different between men and women. Here are some of the warning signs to look out for:

  • Chest pain- This is common, but it may be less of a shooting pain and more like pressure, squeezing, or fullness.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the body- These areas may include the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Extreme fatigue

Because of the many ways a heart attack can manifest, it’s very important that you see a doctor immediately if you have any of the warning signs. It may be simple indigestion but it may also be a heart attack. The risks are too high to brush off the symptoms without getting checked out. The drugs used to treat heart attacks work best if they are administered as soon as possible. This infographic from the American Heart Association is a great tool to keep on-hand so you’ll always remember the warning signs: http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_488240.pdf.

So how do you lower your risk? The most important thing is to talk to your doctor and make sure you know your personal risk level. Your doctor is an excellent resource to help you tailor a plan for your individual needs. Some of the recommendations may include making sure you eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get enough rest.

You may have also heard that drinking red wine and eating dark chocolate can lower your risk. Some studies have indicated that there is a link between lower risk, red wine, and dark chocolate; but it’s not as simple as eating a bunch of chocolate every day (as fun as that might sound!).

Red wine and dark chocolate both contain antioxidants. Antioxidants do a lot for your body, including lowering bad cholesterol, preventing blood clots, and preventing damage to blood vessels. Some studies have indicated that the antioxidants in red wine can lower your risk of heart disease, but others have questioned whether that link is causal or if the lower risk was actually due to other factors, like diet and exercise habits of the participants. A study by the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation Research showed that “a few glasses of nonalcoholic red wine may significantly lower blood pressure,” as well as decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. This is great news if you enjoy the taste of red wine without the alcohol. However, the positive effects are not as clear in alcoholic red wine because the polyphenols cannot work as effectively. Although there is no conclusive evidence on red wine’s ability to lower the risk of heart disease, one thing all studies agree on is that alcohol should be consumed in moderation. According to the American Heart Association, this means 2 drinks per day for the average man and 1 drink per day for the average woman.

Chocolate can also have health benefits, again when consumed in moderation. Flavonoids are a naturally occurring substance in cocoa and have been associate with a decreased risk of dementia, insulin resistance, and blood pressure (check out the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension for more information). Dark chocolate is best because it has a higher concentration of flavonoids and less added sugar. Obviously you shouldn’t give up your chicken, fish, fruits, and vegetables in favor of chocolate, but it is nice to know that a piece of dark chocolate after dinner can satisfy your sweet tooth and provide health benefits at the same time!

The key here is to work closely with your doctor to determine what’s best for you, and to share this information with your loved ones- you never know when a little knowledge can save a life.

Want to learn more? Here are some great resources available online:

American Heart Association

Harvard

Mayo Clinic

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