Listen to Your Heart: What to Know About Your Heart Health

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February is American Heart Month, a time to focus on your cardiovascular health.

Heart disease is the no. 1 killer of women, but there are steps you can take every day towards lowering your risk. In honor of February being American Heart Month, we connected with Dr. James Forshee, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Priority Health, to learn how to take an active role in your cardiovascular health and what it takes to keep your heart healthy.

Dr. Forshee acknowledges how women especially need to prioritize their heart health in their daily lives, as heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. and can affect women at any age.

"The Centers for Disease Control says only about half of U.S. women recognize that heart disease is their no. 1 killer," Dr. Forshee said. "Knowing this, it is incredibly important for women to know the facts, including the signs, symptoms, risk factors and steps to take to protect their health. A healthy heart means a longer life."

There are a number of factors related to heart health that many people don't realize, which can ultimately effect recognizing when things are serious.

"For both men and women, the most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes," Dr. Forshee said. "But what some might not know is that chest pain is not always severe or even noticeable in women."

Dr. Forshee explains that women are more likely than men to have other heart attack symptoms, such as:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or upper belly discomfort.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain in one or both arms.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Sweating.
  • Dizziness.
  • Unusual fatigue.
  • Heartburn.

Outside of heart attack symptoms, there are several signs your heart health could need attention and improving.

"Indicators of a heart that is at risk include shortness of breath from minimal or low-impact activities, a feeling of tightness around your heart and weakness in your arms or legs," Dr. Forshee explained. "On the flip side, signs of a healthy heart include having a resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute, good energy levels throughout the day and normal blood pressure."

Thankfully, Dr. Forshee notes there are plenty of preventive actions women can take to improve their heart health—many of which can be done right at home.

"The most important step is to consciously live a healthy lifestyle," he explained. "That means not smoking, maintaining a healthy diet, consistently exercising, managing stress, limiting alcohol intake and managing other health conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol."

According to Dr. Forshee, women should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, like walking, every day. Even better, he says, is to aim for 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise each day

"If you can't fit in a full 60 minutes, break it up into 10-, 20- or 30-minute sessions throughout the day. Even a single 10-minute session has health benefits!"

Unsurprisingly, stress is a part of life and comes with being human. However, if it goes unmanaged, Dr. Forshee emphasizes that this stress can have a significant impact on your mental and physical health, including your heart.

"Find healthy ways to cope with stress, such as taking time for a hobby, practicing meditation, stretching, regular therapy visits, connecting with friends and finally, getting enough sleep," Dr. Forshee recommended, noting that adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. "Quality z's are so important and will help you tolerate stress."

If you've made some changes to your health already, you may feel some differences from your new habits. But you may be wondering how you can know for sure if your heart health is improving and what exactly to look for.

"There are several factors you can use to gauge your heart health, including heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, energy levels, healthy breathing and rate of recovery after strenuous exercises," Dr. Forshee said. "If any of these factors improve after you've made lifestyle changes, you're on the right track."

As you read about these heart health indicators, let it also be a reminder to be regularly proactive about your own health.

"Schedule regular visits with your primary care physician or cardiologist to monitor your heart health and to detect any problems early; at the bare minimum, get your annual physical."

Dr. Forshee also says to call for emergency medical help immediately if you have symptoms of a heart attack or think you're having one. Call 911 and do not drive yourself to the emergency room.

To learn even more about American Heart Month and information surrounding heart health, visit CDC and American Heart Association.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.

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Dr. James Forshee,
Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Priority Health




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