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NOEM: Take steps to prevent heart disease

On Aug. 23, 2002, Dan and Cheryl Valburg from South Dakota received the worst call a parent could imagine, explains the American Heart Association. During gym class that day, their 13-year-old daughter, Alex, collapsed. She later died in the hospital. In Alex’s case, heart disease was unavoidable; it was genetic.  

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But for most of us, that’s not the case.

Cardiovascular disease is not just an “old man’s disease.” It claims the life of more than one thousand moms, sisters and daughters every single day. In fact, it’s the No. 1 killer of American women and the No. 4 cause of death for women in South Dakota.

Up until about 10 years ago, cardiovascular disease was thought to primarily impact the men in our lives. Sadly, that misperception meant many women with heart disease weren’t aware that the symptoms they were experiencing could indicate a heart attack. And, many doctors weren’t trained to immediately respond as they would if a man were experiencing such symptoms. As a result, thousands of women didn’t get help -- or even seek help -- in time.

Like men, the most common heart attack symptom for women is chest pain or discomfort. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly.

Women are also somewhat more likely than men to experience other common symptoms, including a shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

The American Heart Association explains that acting quickly is key and warns: “don’t wait longer than a few minutes (no more than 5) before calling for help.” Calling 911 is almost always the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment.

Of course, the best treatment is prevention, and when it comes to heart disease, there are risk factors that many of us can control. For instance, smoking puts you at a greater risk for a heart attack. Resolve to quit.

Monitor your cholesterol and watch your blood pressure. High blood pressure, in particular, has no symptoms, so get it checked each time you visit the doctor. Have your glucose levels checked regularly -- especially if diabetes runs in your family.

Get moving and watch your diet. Regular physical activity helps reduce the risk of heart attack, heart disease and stroke. Obesity also increases a woman’s risk of developing heart disease.

Over the last decade, we’ve made tremendous progress in the fight against heart disease. Last week, I joined other female members of Congress in wearing red to show our support for this fight.  I encourage you to also “Go Red” and tell other women about heart disease risk factors and symptoms.

As a parent, I can’t imagine what the Valburgs have been through. Their family has now been tested for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is what took Alex’s life. Her mother was a carrier and her sister inherited the gene. Each has received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, and while it isn’t foolproof, the American Heart Association writes that it gives the family some peace of mind.

Research and awareness is moving in the right direction, but fighting heart disease takes action from all of us. Yes, heart disease can be genetic, and in rare cases nearly unavoidable. But in many cases, we can do something to reduce our risk. I urge you to take control and make just one change today.