Heart disease is one of the most common chronic health conditions in the U.S. and worldwide. Each year, more than 600,000 Americans die of heart disease — that’s one in every four deaths. The term “heart disease” is a broad one that includes several different types of heart conditions, including:

  • Arrhythmias (heart rhythm conditions)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Congenital heart defects (something present from birth)
  • Heart valve diseases
  • Heart muscle diseases
  • Infections

February is American Heart Month, a time to bring awareness to cardiovascular disease. It’s important to understand heart disease, including the steps you can take to reduce your risk and take care of your cardiovascular health.

Heart disease can affect anyone

One of the most important things to understand about heart disease is that it can affect anyone. Children, teens, adults, and older adults can all have heart disease that puts them at risk. Children and teens are more likely to be impacted by a congenital heart condition, while older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions like coronary artery disease or heart valve problems. Similarly, heart disease affects both men and women — it is the number one cause of preventable death in both men and women.

Symptoms can be hard to detect

Many people are familiar with symptoms of a heart attack, including chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. But many people are not aware they have a heart condition until they experience a heart attack. Other early signs of coronary artery disease can be hard to detect, and may not immediately make you think you need a doctor. These include:

  • Discomfort or pain in your chest
  • Fainting
  • “Fluttering” feeling in your chest
  • Lightheadedness and dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Slow or racing heartbeat

Symptoms can also differ between men and women. Both men and women are likely to experience shortness of breath, and chest pain or discomfort can occur in both men and women. However, women are more likely to have symptoms we don’t normally associate with heart attacks, including indigestion and back pain. Sometimes, women don’t experience chest pain, making it challenging to identify it as a heart attack.

If you experience early signs or symptoms, talk to your primary care provider at your annual checkup. If the symptoms are severe, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.

Diabetes and heart disease are closely linked

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seven in 10 people over age 65 who have diabetes will die from some type of heart disease. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have heart disease or suffer from a stroke compared to people without diabetes. Having diabetes also puts you at risk of a heart attack or stroke at a younger age, and the longer you have diabetes the more likely you are to develop heart disease. The good news is that you can do things to lower your diabetes and heart disease risk. If you were already diagnosed with diabetes, you can also make healthy lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

These factors elevate risk for heart disease

There are lifestyle and genetic risk factors that can put someone at higher risk of developing heart disease. Overall, men have a higher risk of heart disease compared to women, but a woman’s risk goes up after menopause. Other risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Uncontrolled gum disease or poor dental health
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Not getting enough exercise
  • Excessive alcohol consumption

Additionally, there are some things that put women at higher risk of a heart attack, including:

  • Higher testosterone levels before menopause
  • High blood pressure during menopause
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune conditions that are more common in women
  • Higher levels of stress or depression

Regular checkups reduce risk

One of the best ways to reduce your risk for heart disease is to have an annual preventive exam. If you have chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about whether you need more frequent checkups.

Healthy lifestyle choices also reduce risk

While some risks for heart disease are out of your control (such as genetically inherited risks), there are several things you can do in your daily life to improve your heart health. These healthy lifestyle choices can also reduce your risk for other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It’s essential to do what you can to lower the risk factors you can control by:

  • Avoiding smoking, and quitting if you currently smoke
  • Eat a healthy diet of lean meats with lots of fruits and vegetables that is low in fat (especially saturated fats and trans fats)
  • Eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods
  • Get regular exercise (and see below for more)
  • Keep track of your health information, and be aware of critical numbers like your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and your weight

Make exercise part of your daily routine

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk. Health experts recommend that people get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. That means getting about 30 minutes of exercise each day for five days of the week. For some people, 150 minutes a week might seem like a lot. Maybe you have a busy schedule, you don’t like to exercise, or your body isn’t physically ready for longer workouts. In those situations, getting some exercise is better than none. The American Heart Association has helpful tips for building physical stamina and exercise capacity over time in a way that is healthy for your body.