February is Heart Month and is a good time to educate yourself on how to protect your heart from heart disease.

Heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease or ischemic heart disease, is the second leading cause of death among Canadians. Over two million adults in Canada live with the disease. It’s an important condition to talk about because it affects so many of us.

Heart disease is caused by the accumulation of plaque and other injuries in the small arteries of the heart that deliver blood to the heart muscles (called coronary arteries). Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of heart disease, where cholesterol form plaques on the inner walls of arteries. Eventually, the plaques can break off and form blood clots, which cause blockages. Blockages in the coronary arteries disrupt the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to heart muscles, and can lead to angina and heart attacks.

Think of the arteries as pipes – just like the pipes under a kitchen sink, plaque and debris can build up in the arteries over time and cause narrowing and hardening of the vessels, and eventually complete blockages.

A heart attack is what happens when the blood flow to an area of the heart is completely blocked. A heart attack can suddenly happen anytime and needs immediate treatment.

Symptoms of a heart attack can include chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, pain radiating to the jaw or down the left arm, lightheadedness, and sense of impending doom.

Angina is a condition caused by narrowing of the coronary arteries, causing a temporary reduction in flow of blood and oxygen to an area of the heart.

Symptoms of angina can be similar but are usually triggered by activity (such as walking, running, and going up and downstairs) and relieved with rest or medication. If someone experiences angina, that is a warning that they may have a heart attack in the future without medical treatment.

As with any disease, there are risk factors that make someone more likely to develop heart disease. Risk factors include age, ethnicity, family history (ie. genetics), having diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis; obesity, smoking, poor diet, lack of regular exercise, and stress.

There are ways to decrease your risk by living a healthy lifestyle, such as avoid smoking, regular exercise, controlling blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol; and eating a healthy diet. Speak to your physician about how to lower your risk.

If you experience symptoms that are similar to angina or a heart attack, call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest hospital immediately. Keep in mind that symptoms of a heart attack can show differently in men and women.

Women often experience more subtle signs like fatigue, nausea, abdominal cramping, or shortness of breath, which can delay emergency treatment.

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