Staying Heart Healthy

Learn about risk factors, symptoms and preventions for heart disease

A middle-aged man keeps his heart healthy removing a surfboard from his car in an outdoor beach setting.

by Emily Scott, MD

As a cardiologist, I see and treat people every day for heart disease. One of the most important roles I can play as a physician is to help educate the public about this prevalent condition.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of people worldwide. Interestingly, heart disease is highly treatable and preventable through proper health maintenance, a healthy diet, regular exercise and the use of physician-prescribed medications to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease

Some people may be more at risk than others for a heart attack or other cardiovascular diseases. Cardiac testing at regular intervals is a great tool for your cardiologist to use when evaluating your health.

The American Heart Association has identified several risk factors for coronary heart disease. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance for developing heart disease.

Some major risk factors that cannot be changed:

  • Increasing age
  • Male gender
  • Genetic predisposition to heart disease

Major risk factors that can be modified, treated or controlled:

  • Smoking
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity and being overweight
  • Diabetes

Other factors that may affect your risk:

  • Stress
  • Excessive alcohol intake

Heart disease and women

More than 400,000 women die of heart disease in America each year — more than twice the number of women who die of all types of cancer combined.

It can be difficult to diagnose heart disease in women. While men typically have dull, heavy pressure in the center of the chest or have a burning sensation in the chest, what we would consider pretty classic symptoms, women can have fatigue, weakness and pain that doesn’t have the typical features of angina.

Women should be aware of any change in their health. If a woman gets chest pressure or tightness or if they notice unusual fatigue, they need to take note. It’s so important to remember that time is heart muscle — if you experience any unusual symptoms or think you may be having a heart attack, call 911.

Heart disease symptoms

The biggest warning sign for a heart attack or heart disease is any type of angina or chest pain. Other common areas for pain associated with heart disease are in the arms, jaw or the back. Between 30 and 40 percent of women with heart disease will have atypical symptoms or none at all.

Some atypical symptoms include:

  • General malaise and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Gastrointestinal complaints

It’s important to take charge of your health, know what your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are, and to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle.

For more information about cardiac health and cardiac programs, visit the American Heart Association’s website.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Emily Scott, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital.