February is Heart Month—not just the hearts you cut out of construction paper and send to loved ones, but the heart you care for each day. 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for all people, regardless of gender, yet research shows that there is a decline in people’s awareness about the signs and symptoms of heart disease. Many people don’t realize that preventing heart disease starts in their twenties and thirties.

Mennonite College of Nursing Assistant Professor Dr. John Blakeman is an expert in heart health; his dissertation in the Ph.D. program won Illinois State University’s Clarence W. Sorensen Distinguished Dissertation award, and his research has been featured in numerous academic articles. Here’s what he wants you to know about cardiovascular disease—and how you can prevent it.

MCN Assistant Professor Dr. John Blakeman is an expert on heart health.

What the experts want you to know about heart disease

  1. Heart disease isn’t just something that affects men. It is the leading cause of death for all people, regardless of gender, race, and other aspects of identity.
  2. The symptoms of heart disease and heart attack can vary, including unusual and overwhelming fatigue; weakness and sweating for no reason; chest discomfort; shortness of breath; neck/jaw/throat/back/upper abdomen pain or discomfort; and your legs feeling numb, weak, or in pain (Mayo Clinic). These symptoms are not gender-specific; people of all genders can experience any combination of these symptoms. In particular, fatigue is a very common symptom people experience in the weeks leading up to a heart attack, and it is the most common symptom in women.
  3. The groundwork for heart disease starts in our 20s and 30s. “People think they can do what they want until they’re 40 or 50, and then they have to watch what they eat and exercise. But really those initial changes in the body happen in our 20s and 30s—and even earlier for some people,” says Blakeman. No matter your age, it’s always the right time to start caring for your heart.
  4. You should know your blood pressure and cholesterol levels—even if you’re young. “Know what your blood pressure is, even if you’re 18 or 20 years old. Know what your cholesterol looks like.” Many people don’t know they have high cholesterol because they believe they are healthy and/or fit. Knowing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels prepares you and your health care provider to know if your levels are rising.
  5. Make sure to go to the doctor regularly. Some might not be able to go once or twice a year due to lack of health care access, but try to get in at least every other year so your health care provider can monitor your health.

So, what can you do to reduce your risk of heart disease? Here are Dr. John Blakeman’s five tips for staying heart healthy:

  1. Get exercise. “It doesn’t have to be intense and exhausting,” says Blakeman. “Take a 30-minute walk around the block five days a week, or take 30 minutes to walk around your house.”
  2. Avoid smoking—including electronic products such as vapes.
  3. Keep a balanced diet, paying special attention to your intake of sugar, trans fats, and saturated fats.
  4. Keep a healthy blood pressure, and know what your blood pressure is so you can be aware of changes in your health.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight—though weight itself is not a singular indicator of health, and heart disease can affect people of all sizes.

“This is the advice for preventing heart disease but also many cancers and other conditions,” says Blakeman.

A heart-healthy lifestyle is critical to having a higher quality of life and giving us more time with our loved ones. What will you do to protect your heart?

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