February is National Heart Month! Heart disease awareness is particularly important to me. Both of my grandfathers (who took very good care of themselves) had heart disease, which ultimately took their lives. I also have a mitral valve prolapse, which means that the valve between the upper and lower chambers of my heart does not close properly. I am lucky that my case is very minor, but it still puts me at a higher risk for heart disease. Considering my own history as well as my family’s history, my heart health is not something I take lightly.

There is an abundance of information on heart disease out there, but here are 9 of the facts I think it’s most important that every woman is aware of.

1. Heart disease is the #1 killer of both men and women. Although commonly known as a “men’s disease”, more women have died every year of heart disease than men since 1984. Heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined.

2. The term “heart disease” is used for several heart-related problems such as heart attack, stroke, irregular heart beat, and heart valve problems. Coronary artery disease (often used interchangeably with “heart disease” as it is the most common form of heart disease) refers to the narrowing of small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. Plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries which makes it more difficult for blood to flow and creates a risk of heart attack or stroke.

3. A stroke (the 4th leading cause of death) occurs when a blood vessel bursts or is blocked. Some people don’t associate strokes with heart disease, but the terms are married.

4. Most cases of heart disease are not genetic (roughly 30% of cases are considered genetic).

5. Warning signs of a heart attack are often different for women than men, and are most often NOT sudden chest pain like you see on TV. Women often experience flu-like symptoms and the pain can feel like stomach cramps, indigestion, overwhelming fatigue for several days, headache or a pulled muscle. For this reason, women tend to dismiss their discomfort. Other common symptoms are chest pain or discomfort, discomfort in other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, nausea, and light headedness.

6. So what do you do if you think you are concerned you may be having a heart attack or stroke? Women tend to put the needs of others before themselves, and will put off seeking medical attention to the last minute. If you think you’re having a heart attack, take aspirin immediately (chew it for the fastest action). Aspirin inhibits platelets, which trigger the clotting that leads to heart attack. Next, rush to the hospital as quickly as possible.

7. Not smoking cuts your risk of heart disease in half! Along with pretty much every other organ in your body, smoking has extremely damaging effects on your heart and blood vessels.

8. There are a TON of things you can do to help prevent heart disease. Along with not smoking, reducing and managing stress, staying active (even just 30 minutes of walking per day), eating heart healthy foods, maintaining a healthy weight, and controlling conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes are all ways you can help reduce your risk factors for heart disease.

Sources: The Christ Hospital Heart & Vascular Center, American Heart Association, The Dr. Oz Show, Indy Star, Harvard Health, UC Hospitals

Photo Credit: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/HeartDisease/hpv-heart-disease/story?id=14804608