If you’re a woman younger than age 55, you may not have “heart attack” at the top of your list of health concerns. But according to new research in the journal Circulation, younger women in the U.S. are experiencing heart attacks at a higher rate than they were 20 years ago.

Certain rare conditions can cause heart disease to develop prematurely. But, it's more likely caused by lifestyle choices like poor diet, lack of exercise, stress and smoking. These can lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, which all heighten your risk for heart attack and stroke.

The good news: You can take steps at any age to improve your heart health and lower your heart attack risk. A cardiologist at Virtua Cardiology – Cherry Hill, has everything you need to know:

First things first: How to spot a heart attack

Women can experience heart attacks differently from men. Yes, there can be severe chest pain, shooting pain down the left arm and a cold sweat. But, women are more likely to experience other symptoms, including:

  • Pressure, pain or tightness in the chest that may spread to the arms, neck, jaw or back
  • Fatigue, sometimes for days and without a clear reason
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • Shortness of breath, even when sitting down
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness

And remember, heart attacks don’t always happen like you see in the movies. Symptoms often occur suddenly, but they also can develop slowly over hours, days or weeks. The more symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you're having a heart attack. If you notice any of these heart attack signs in yourself or someone else, call 911 immediately.

Take these steps to safeguard your heart

No matter what age you are, a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk for heart problems. Take these steps to protect your heart:

  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco or use electronic cigarettes (vapes). If you do smoke, seek ways to quit.
  • Get moving. Try to do 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. If your schedule doesn’t allow it, try splitting it into three 10-minute sessions. In addition, aim to do plus two or more days a week of strength training.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Learn more how a plant-based diet can reverse heart disease or reduce your risk, or try the Mediterranean or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets that are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low- or fat-free dairy products. Avoid added sugars, sodium and saturated and trans fats, and limit alcohol consumption.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Losing weight can decrease your blood sugar, triglycerides, blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Get regular, good-quality sleep. Seek treatment for sleep disorders.
  • Manage your stress.
  • See your primary care provider—in sickness and especially in health. Get regular wellness exams and screenings so your doctor has a complete picture of your health and important heart health numbers like your blood pressure and cholesterol.

With a little work and willpower, you can lower your risk for heart disease. For more help, call 1-888-847-8823 to schedule a consultation with a Virtua cardiologist.