It’s February and heart-shaped symbols are appearing on everything. A symbol of love, to be sure, but there is more to think about — for example, heart disease.

Did you know heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of women? Knowing the risk factors and changing harmful behavior can help you stay heart healthy.

Stop smoking. The reasons smoking is dangerous are too numerous to mention, but just stop now. By quitting you will cut your risk for heart disease in half.

Control high blood pressure. The plaque build-up on artery walls may be increased by the stress of high blood pressure.

Reduce high cholesterol. Build-up in the artery walls makes the heart work harder.

Many people are familiar with the signs of a heart attack in men, including pain down the arm and severe chest pain. A woman’s symptoms of a heart attack, however, are often nebulous and can be misdiagnosed. These symptoms can be present for years but may accelerate even a month prior to the heart attack itself. Some women may have heart disease without even realizing it and the risk increases with age, especially in postmenopausal women who no longer produce estrogen.

According to the WomenHeart website,, women having a heart attack may experience symptoms such as:

• Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes, or comes and goes.

• Crushing chest pain.

• Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw, or arms.

• Dizziness or nausea.

• Clammy sweats, heart flutters or paleness.

• Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness, especially with exertion.

• Stomach or abdominal pain.

• Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

Since these symptoms are vague, they may be dismissed, which could prove life-threatening. According to WomenHeart, some survivors have experienced medical providers “attributing the cause of symptoms to other health problems, such as indigestion.”

The bottom line is to not ignore signs of a heart attack, to listen to your body, and seek medical attention immediately if you have symptoms. Don’t be shy about insisting that an EKG test or an enzyme blood test is performed.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of community education at Eastern Area Agency on Aging.