February is American Heart Month. Now, more than ever, keeping your ticker in check is important. With the coronavirus raging on, maintaining your health and wellness is essential.

Heart diseases, like heart attack and coronary artery disease, are the number one killer of women and are steadily affecting younger people. Congenital heart defects affect up to 1.3 million Americans, including my 17-month old daughter and me.

Congenital Heart Defects

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Ventricular Septal Defect (the diagnosis that my 17-month old and I share), Atrial Septal Defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, and Aortic Valve Stenosis are a few congenital heart defects that can be repaired by surgery or a wait and watch approach. According to the American Heart Association, "Recent progress in diagnosis and treatment (surgery and heart catheterization) makes it possible to fix most defects, even those once thought to be hopeless."

This is good news for all heart warriors and their families. Although experts do not know the cause of most congenital heart defects, there is a genetic component. Although I had to have open-heart surgery in the early '90s, the outlook for my daughter is positive and her cardiologist does not expect her to undergo surgery. (Did I jump around in excitement when her cardiologist said this? Yes, I did!) However, surgery can be lifesaving for some and can increase quality of life for others. Staying healthy and having regular checkups with your cardiologist is important. Some people with heart defects may have restrictions on activities, so make sure to follow the advice of your cardiologist and medical team.

Heart Disease and Women

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According to the CDC, heart disease is the number one killer of African American and white women. For American Indian and Alaska Native women, heart disease comes in second, but that’s only because cancer is neck and neck with heart disease. For Asian, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander women, heart disease comes in second only to cancer as the leading cause of death.

The statistics are scary, but when faced with the facts and the knowledge that something can be done about heart disease, the motivation to do something gets easier. Education and action can change the outcome for women, and the sooner we start healthy habits, the better.

Symptoms and Risk Factors for Heart Disease

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Symptoms of heart disease can include chest pain (sharp or dull) which is called angina. Neck, jaw, or throat pain and pain in the upper abdomen or back can also be a sign. If you have symptoms including nausea, vomiting, fatigue, indigestion, dizziness, shortness of breath, palpitations, or swelling of the lower extremities, these could be a sign of heart attack or heart failure. Heart attacks are affecting more women aged 35-54, according to a study at Johns Hopkins, likely due to the rise in risk factors among a younger population. Women are also more likely to die from a heart attack than men. Getting help quickly is essential, advocating for yourself is important, and knowing your family medical history could potentially save your life.

Risk factors for heart disease are many, and include obesity, diabetes, eating an unhealthy diet, drinking alcohol, smoking, and physical inactivity. Starting heart-healthy habits is necessary in the fight against heart disease.

Stop Smoking and Drink Less Alcohol

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Sure, Adam Ant may call you a “goody-two-shoes,” but we’d take that over dying of heart disease any day. Even though we’re through Dry January, there’s nothing stopping you from making February, March, or April (etcetera, you get the picture) the month to start abstaining from booze.

Curbing your intake of alcohol will not only lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, but will also give the liver a break, reduce the risk of cancer, contribute to weight loss, and give the brain a boost. Drinkers who imbibe moderately (one drink for women, two for men a day) may not need to change their habits, as there may be some benefits, as long as they stay within the guidelines recommended by the CDC.

As any heavy drinker will tell you, a cocktail just tastes better with a cigarette, or vice versa, especially for the former smokers among us. Your brain actually agrees and according to a study done by Baylor College of Medicine, smoking can create memory associations. The study stated, "we found that nicotine could strengthen neuronal synaptic connections only when the so-called reward centers sent a dopamine signal. That was a critical process in creating the memory associations even with bad behavior like smoking." So, while you’re on the wagon, it’s probably a smart time to think about quitting smoking too. Quitting smoking has immediate and long-term benefits. See the CDC for tips on smoking cessation.

Engage in Physical Activity

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We get it, giving you advice to “work out” is getting a little old. However, when you get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, you can reduce your risk of heart disease, lower your blood pressure, and improve your heart and lung function.

Investing in a fitness tracker, or keeping the one you have charged, can help you figure out your current level of activity, and help you make realistic goals during your hectic day-to-day life. Carve out some time for yourself and get moving.

Eat a Healthy Diet

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Surprise! Along with getting in a workout each day, eating a balanced, healthy diet is recommended for heart-health. Try to incorporate meatless-Mondays into your week, with recipes like this simple white bean soup or quinoa chili, and snack on zucchini chips and vegan banana bread to ease into eating more healthfully.

Does this mean saying goodbye to your favorite foods forever? It shouldn’t, according to Shape. Depriving yourself of your favorite foods isn’t the key to eating healthier and can actually lead to bingeing, whereas indulging a little daily will boost your mood and help you on your way to a healthier lifestyle.

Regular Checkups

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Make your health a priority by getting an annual physical with your primary care physician. If you are unsure about your family's medical history you can do genetic testing through an at-home DNA testing kit like AncestryHealth. Keep a journal or make a note on your phone, to track your exercise, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, and if you’re diabetic your blood glucose numbers. Stay on top of all conditions and medications.

Manage Stress and Get a Good Night’s Sleep

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If somehow stress is not a huge part of your life, we are going to assume that these tips and tricks are working to help manage and reduce your stress. Practicing self-love, keeping a gratitude journal, working on a project or hobby that you enjoy, and finding a healthy work-life balance can be easier said than done. However, working toward managing stress will have a multitude of benefits.

According to the American Heart Association, "the link between stress and cardiovascular disease is not clear, but it can lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices that are associated with high blood pressure and heart disease." Being stressed out at work can lead to the drive-thru, which leads to skipping your workout, etc. The converse is also true. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and getting enough sleep are ways to live a life less stressed.

Practice mindfulness or meditation before bed, read a book, take a bath, or sip on a cup of herbal tea to get yourself ready for sleep. A study by the American Heart Association found a link between poor sleep quality and a significant risk of developing high blood pressure, which could lead to heart disease. Put down the electronics before bed, and aim to get around six to eight hours each night.

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