This Sunday is World Heart Day—a day full of local activities designed to hike awareness about the devastating impact of heart disease and stroke, which kill 17.3 million people each year. That’s more than the number of people who die from malaria, HIV/AIDS, and TB put together.
One of the major pushes of #worldheartday this year is to bust the myth that cardiovascular disease (CVD) mostly affects older, male, affluent populations. Women and children are just as vulnerable. A million babies year are born each year with a congenital heart defect. And heart disease kills one in three women; in fact, it’s the No. 1 killer of women.
I know this first hand.
One night in 1997 my mom started to feel a little sweaty and nauseous. After being sick to her stomach, she was so tired she dropped into bed. When she wasn’t better the next day, she went to an urgent care center. They diagnosed her with the flu, and sent her home. After another day passed and my mother was now almost too weak to stand up, my dad took her to the emergency room. It was then that she learned she’d had a heart attack and had suffered heart damage that they weren’t sure they could repair. She was airlifted to another hospital where, after unsuccessful open heart surgery, she died.
Thanks to the World Heart Federation and its partners and to days like World Heart Day, I don’t think my mom would have been sent home with the flu today. We—women, doctors, the media—are far more aware that women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men. But there’s much more work that needs to be done.
Here’s how we can all work to help the World Heart Federation and the World Health Organization reach their target of reducing CVD deaths 25% by 2025:
Take a hard look at your health: Because heart problems can sneak up on women (64% of women die suddenly during their first heart attack without any warning signs at all, and 90% of those women had at least one risk factor that could have been addressed), it’s important to get an annual checkup and be aware of CVD risk factors: high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, tobacco use or second-hand exposure, obesity, and being overweight. The more you know, the more you can protect yourself like these women did. It pays to know your risks (you can try the World Heart Federation’s risk calculator here).
Eat smarter: We know that to prevent heart attacks we need to avoid unhealthy food, and eat foods rich in nutrients, fiber, and healthy fats. These 18 superfoods fit the bill.
Get moving: If you start exercising now you can experience benefits–even if you’re over 40. A German study found that people over 40 who became physically active were around 55% less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease than those who had been inactive all their lives.