February is American Heart Month

“Some people have five-year plans, I have a five-year reflection. As of Feb. 26, it will be five years since my cardiac arrest and the day my sons saved me using CPR,” said Shannon Chamizo, a mother of two sons and a passionate advocate for the American Heart Association and CPR.

Shannon isn’t alone in her struggle with heart disease, and many people who are affected may not even realize it.

February is American Heart Month, a time to encourage awareness of the issue of women and heart disease. Each year, one in three women die of heart disease and stroke. But we can change that because 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes. National Wear Red Day — the first Friday each February — is our special day to bring attention to this staggering fact. We encourage everyone to wear red on this day, raise your voices, and know your cardiovascular risk to live a longer, healthier life.

Did you know you can save a life?

Many people think that a heart attack is sudden and intense, like a “Hollywood” heart attack depicted in the movies, where a person clutches his or her chest and falls over. The truth is that many heart attacks start as a mild discomfort in the center of the chest. Someone who feels such a warning may not be sure what is wrong. The discomfort (and other symptoms) may even come and go. Even people who have had a heart attack may not recognize the signs, because the next one can have entirely different symptoms. Warning signs could include: chest discomfort that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back (the discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness), discomfort in other areas of the upper body (such as one or both arms or in the back, neck, jaw, or stomach), shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, light-headedness or a sense of impending doom. If you have any of these symptoms, you should immediately call 911.

What to do?

Call 911. Timing is everything. People who experience the warning signs of a heart attack often deny how serious the situation is and take a wait-and-see approach. But time is very important, and anyone with these warning signs needs to get medical evaluation and treatment right away. By calling 911 and taking an ambulance, you will get to the hospital in the fastest way possible. There also are other benefits to calling 911: emergency personnel can begin treatment immediately — even before you arrive at the hospital. Also, your heart may stop beating during a heart attack (cardiac arrest) and emergency personnel have the knowledge and equipment to help treat you. Patients who arrive by ambulance tend to receive faster treatment on their arrival at the hospital and ambulance personnel can notify the hospital before you arrive that you are headed their way.

Learn CPR. If not for her two sons, Shannon might not be here today. On two separate occasions, they had to perform CPR on their mother until emergency services workers could arrive. Since those events, our ohana has been trained and certified in CPR, first aid and how to use an AED (automated external defibrillator.) I’ve also gone on to receive my Basic Lifesaving Skills course Instructor certificate and it has been very rewarding to share our story and the importance of knowing CPR. The American Heart Association continues to support policy efforts that would lead to Hawaii’s public high school students receiving CPR training as a graduation requirement and it holds numerous outreach events to teach CPR in the community.

How can you prevent heart disease?

There are many things you can do to improve your health and prevent heart disease:

Quit Smoking. Don’t smoke, and if you do, quit because cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. The Hawaii Tobacco Quitline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) is a free local service to quit smoking or using tobacco.

Exercise regularly. Adults should get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week. Eat a healthy diet. Choosing healthful meal and snack options can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and limit sugary beverages, excess sodium and salt and high-fat and heavily-processed foods.

Limit your sodium

Limiting salt or sodium in your diet can help lower your blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends that people eat and drink less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, however, the average American eats about double that amount. Too much sodium can cause high blood pressure, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. The American Heart Association is working to promote legislation that would decrease the amount of sodium food manufacturers can add to products. To join this effort, take the sodium pledge at http://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/.

Know your numbers

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is called the “silent killer” because it often has no warning signs or symptoms and many people do not know they have it. That’s why it is important to check your blood pressure regularly. You should also know your cholesterol levels and your Hemoglobin A1C numbers and keep those within healthy limits. Talk with your healthcare provider about your numbers and goals. Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease. To determine whether your weight is in a healthy range, doctors often calculate a number called the body mass index (BMI). While it may not be easy, taking the first steps in improving your heart health is the way to go.

Did you know?

In Hawaii, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and is more deadly than all forms of cancer combined.

Every year, more than 900 women in Hawaii die from heart disease, about 22 percent of all deaths among women. Heart disease was the No. 1 cause of death among Native Hawaiians, Filipinos, and Japanese in Hawaii in 2009.


Tami Swart is regional director, multicultural initiatives and quality and systems improvement, American Heart Association/American Stroke Association

Linda Green is heart disease and stroke prevention program coordinator, Hawaii State Deparment of Health, chronic disease management and control branch.


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