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The Truths About Heart Disease

Valentine's Day isn't the only reason to wear red this month. To raise awareness of American Heart Month and heart disease, particularly in women, the American Heart Association is holding its annual National Wear Red Day on February 4. This year, take a few minutes to reflect on your health and learn more about the disease and its risk factors.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about heart disease. As is the case with many diseases, knowledge is power. Knowing your risk factors and making healthy changes can go a long way in impacting your health now and down the road," said Dr. J. Nwando Olayiwola, chief medical officer and family practice physician with Community Health Center, Inc.

As a member of the Minority Women's Health Panel of Experts of the Office on Women's Health of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Olayiwola is part of the promotion of the Heart Truth campaign—a national heart disease awareness campaign for women—including perspective and feedback on its promotional materials, resources and education.

Dr. Olayiwola dispels the top three myths associated with heart disease:

Myth #1: Heart disease is a "man's disease."

Truth: According to the American Heart Association, coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attacks, is the single leading cause of death for American women. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat to their lives, but this is not the case. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.

Myth #2: Heart disease risk factors negate each other.

Truth: "A lot of people think, 'Well, I’m thin and I exercise regularly, so it's not a big deal that I smoke,'" said Dr. Olayiwola. "They couldn't be more wrong. Risk factors have a cumulative effect. Each increases your risk."

Heart disease risk factors include:

  • Smoking

  • Unhealthy weight. Your Body Mass Index (or BMI)—a measurement of your weight in relation to your height—is a good indicator of whether you're at a healthy weight. A healthy BMI falls within the 18.5 to 25 range. Use this calculator to find out your BMI.

  • High blood pressure and cholesterol. "It's extremely important to know your numbers," said Dr. Olayiwola. During your doctor visits, you will be checked for blood pressure and cholesterol. A healthy blood pressure is at least lower than 140/90, and your total cholesterol count should be under 200.

  • Inactivity. The American Heart Association recommends exercising 30 minutes each day, five days a week. If finding 30 free minutes per day is difficult, try breaking it up into three 10-minute segments of exercise. No gym membership? That’s okay! Walking, climbing stairs, even playing outside with your kids counts as exercise.

  • Drinking alcohol. Alcohol is okay—in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. A drink is one 12-ounce beer, four ounces of wine, one and a half ounces of 80-proof spirits or one ounce of 100-proof spirits.

  • Family history. Knowing your family's history of heart disease is important for two reasons: if you know you're at risk, you may be more inclined to make healthy changes, and if your doctor knows about your family's history, he or she will begin testing you early for diabetes and cholesterol counts.

Myth #3: You don't need to worry about risk factors until later in life.

Truth: Good habits must start early. "By the time someone reaches their 20s or 30s, the risk factors have begun taking effect on their health," said Dr. Olayiwola. "But the good news is that certain risk factors can be changed. You can't fight genetics or your age, but you can change your lifestyle."

To keep track of your risk factors and overall heart health, check out Heart360®, an online system that tracks your weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, activity and more, as well as provides information on ways to improve your health.