According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease causes about 1 in every 4 deaths in the United States. Fortunately, many of these deaths are preventable. That's why it's important to take February, American Heart Month, as an opportunity to provide heart health information to your members. Don't know where to start? Here's what your membership needs to know to understand the risk factors for heart disease and the steps they can take to protect themselves.
The Prevalence of Heart Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, and the number at risk of developing and dying from heart disease is on the rise. Your members might already be familiar with the primary risk factors for developing heart disease, which include high blood pressure and cholesterol, a history of smoking, obesity, lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol use and chronic diseases like diabetes. Nearly half of all Americans have at least one of these controllable risk factors.
What members are less likely to be aware of, however, is that there are a host of factors they can't control that could also increase their risk. Non-Hispanic black people, white people and those of Asian and Pacific Island descent, for example, are at a higher risk of developing heart disease than Native Americans and Alaskans. The American Heart Association reports that Hispanic women develop heart disease an average of 10 years earlier than non-Hispanics due to higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
However, men overall tend to be at a higher risk than women, especially as they get older: From ages 20 to 59, men and women develop coronary artery disease, the most prevalent form of heart disease, at a similar rate — but after age 60, men develop the disease in greater numbers.
Heart Disease and Heart Attack Symptoms
Heart disease comes in many forms, including arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart defects, heart infections and coronary artery disease. This means that there is no definitive set of symptoms to indicate a person has heart disease, or even that they're having a heart attack. That said, there are some things to watch out for. Even though each type of heart disease has its own symptoms, they commonly tend to induce lightheadedness, dizziness, chest pain, unexplained pain or weakness, shortness of breath, fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, swelling, nausea and indigestion.
Women often experience different symptoms from men and frequently write them off as the flu, acid reflux or normal aches and pains. Women should keep an eye out for dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, neck, back or jaw pain, indigestion, cold sweats and passing out. The experience of having an actual heart attack can differ among the sexes as well: While men and women might have chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, sweating, pain in the shoulders, back, arm or jaw, heartburn, indigestion or sudden dizziness, women are more likely to experience nausea, unexplained weakness or fatigue, pressure in the upper back, chest discomfort and an impending sense of doom.
Heart Healthy Measures for Members
Heart disease is often preventable if members take the right steps to protect their health, and their diet is a great place to start. Here a few straightforward tips for prioritizing heart health at mealtime.
- Choose fruits, vegetables and whole grains when possible.
- Go for healthy fats over trans fats.
- Lower sodium intake.
- Aim to eat low-fat proteins.
- Limit processed foods.
- Control portion size.
The Mayo Clinic recommends planning or prepping menus in advance to ensure a good mix of foods and that groceries are readily at hand. Planning ahead makes it less likely that someone will head to the drive-thru for a quick meal.
Other methods to protect the heart include brushing and flossing daily, getting enough sleep, moving throughout the day (not just exercising, but avoiding sitting for extended periods of time), controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, lowering stress, keeping your BMI below 25, and quitting smoking or avoiding second hand smoke.
When providing members with tips on protecting themselves, remind them that if they believe they're having a heart attack, speed is key to preventing long-term injury or death. They should call 911 or the hospital immediately and chew — not swallow — an aspirin. If the member stops breathing, those nearby should be instructed to call 911 and provide CPR.
Staying heart healthy can be a challenge, but having a firm grasp of how to recognize and prevent heart disease makes it easier. As a union, be proactive by distributing heart health information and reminders about how to prevent heart disease and heart attacks to help keep your membership in the best shape possible.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.