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February is Heart Month, a time for raising awareness about heart disease and what each of us can do to lead a more heart-healthy life.

And while general awareness is important, I’d like to focus today on the heart health of a specific segment of our population: women.

February is also Women’s Heart Health Month, a further designation that’s needed because heart disease is still too often thought of as a man’s disease. And yet heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 killers of U.S. women, taking more lives each year than cancer or other more well-known causes.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a whopping 80 percent of women ages 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for heart disease (which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, being overweight or obese, having diabetes or prediabetes, a history of preeclampsia in pregnancy, physical inactivity, a family history of heart disease and an unhealthy diet. Age becomes an additional risk factor once a woman reaches 55).

And when it comes to having a heart attack, women may experience different symptoms than men. Instead of the well-known crushing chest pain, they might be short of breath with unexplained nausea and pain in the back, neck or jaw. Dismissing these symptoms can delay critical treatment. No matter what your gender, it pays to know all the signs of a heart attack — and if you’re ever in doubt, don’t delay in calling 9-1-1.

So what can you do to reduce your risk? To start with, if you smoke, quit. Your primary care provider can recommend a good smoking cessation program that gets you on the right track to kicking this unhealthy habit.

Next, take a look at your diet. Eat more fruits, veggies and whole grains and fewer saturated fats and trans fats. Look for fiber-filled foods to help reduce cholesterol, and put down the salt shaker to keep your blood pressure in check. Consider eating fewer animal products and look for tasty but easy recipe swaps like using nonfat Greek yogurt in place of sour cream. You don’t have to swear off your favorite treats, but think about saving them for truly special occasions — or eating just a small amount to satisfy a craving or sweet tooth.

When it comes to movement, more is better — but every little bit helps. Starting an exercise program can be daunting if you’re sedentary, but little changes can add up in a big way. Consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking your car at the far end of the lot so you have a longer walk to the building. Look for simple body-weight exercises like planks to tone up at home, and take a walk on your lunch break instead of sitting at your desk. Ready to start a more full-fledged exercise plan? Your primary care provider can help you get started.

Finally, educate yourself and the women in your life on heart disease. The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women website (www.goredforwomen.org) is a great place to start. A little knowledge can go a long way in helping you have a heart-healthy tomorrow. Start today.

Lynda Bahde is family nurse practitioner at Bellin Health, Marinette.