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Heart health awareness is crucial

There are many circumstances where "ignorance is bliss," but when it comes to heart health, ignorance is downright dangerous.

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, but Americans are "largely misinformed" about heart disease prevention and symptoms, according to a new survey from the Cleveland Clinic, a multi-specialty, academic medical center. Even more worrisome: Many people don't know their individual risk because they don't see a doctor regularly.

The irony is that deaths from heart disease have been declining, both nationally and on Long Island. Much of this success has been achieved because of improved diagnosis, drugs, treatments and preventive measures. But these strategies can only be implemented if you see a doctor before the disease advances.

"The vast majority of heart disease is preventable," says Dr. Stacey Rosen, a cardiologist with North Shore-LIJ Health System. "If you're not going for regular checkups to manage the risk factors, you put yourself at a disadvantage."

Women, especially, should be proactive about their heart health. The days of heart attacks being a "man's disease" are long past. Since 1984, more women have died each year from heart disease than men. Rosen, also vice president at the Katz Institute for Women's Health at North Shore-LIJ, says women often don't exhibit the classic "elephant sitting on my chest" heart-attack symptoms that would get them immediate help. "They can also get very vague symptoms -- breathlessness, fatigue, jaw pain or back pain and not have the typical chest-pain symptoms."

What can you do to lower your risk of heart disease? First, have regular checkups. "Identify a primary-care doctor who you trust," Rosen says. "It has to be someone who understands your individualized risk factors."

And if you don't exercise, are overweight or don't eat a healthy diet, make some changes. Just make sure you and your doctor set attainable goals. You don't have to start running marathons or even join a gym. "Any physical activity counts," Rosen says. "Walking the aisles of the supermarket counts."

Also, make sure you get enough sleep. "Everybody needs to sleep six to eight hours a night for heart health," Rosen says.

As for your diet, small changes add up to big gains. "A little bit more fruits and vegetables, a little bit more whole grains, a lot less salt," Rosen says. "It's small, sustainable steps that make a huge difference."

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