The community may seem to be decorated in red hearts this February, and with all the tempting Valentine’s Day candy it may be a good time to consider the health of your heart, rather than just that lovey-dovey feeling the holiday is supposed to induce.

Celebrate National Heart Awareness Month by evaluating your risk of heart disease by reviewing family history, your current health and maybe making a trip to your doctor.

Dr. Alex Topliceanu, M.D., cardiologist with AllianceHealth Woodward, said most of what he sees in his office are patients with chest pain or wanting to prevent coronary heart disease. About 50 percent of patients who come in with a heart attack have never had an issue of coronary heart disease, but do have risk factors, according to Topliceanu. He recommends preventative screenings for those at risk.

“Diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and that over time can lead to decrease blood flow and symptoms of chest pain,” Topliceanu said.

He went on to explain that it can lead to narrowing of the coronary arteries and loss of blood supply which deprives the heart of oxygen. Once a heart muscle has been deprived of oxygen, it is damaged and never actually comes back.

“That's what we deal with most commonly where people over time find themselves having exertion or discomfort, whether it's pressure, shortness of breath, fatigue, and that sort of thing,” Topliceanu said.

Topliceanu said patients tend to be in denial, not wanting to accept the fact that something could be happening or they don’t want to inconvenience anybody. He also stressed how important it is to be able to recognize symptoms of an acute heart attack.

“In the US about 750,000 people have heart attacks every year. And out of those people that have heart attacks, about half of them actually don't do very well. In fact, about one in two people that die from a heart attack will die within the first hour. So that's why every second really matters” Topliceanu explains. “They should really act as quickly as possible and not worry about embarrassment.”

The most common symptoms in men are chest pressure, heaviness, shortness of breath, discomfort in the neck or shoulder or jaw. Women sometimes have atypical symptoms, that are recurring episodes in a pattern that gets increasingly worse: Dizziness, unusual fatigue, nausea, vomiting, according to Topliceanu.

“[It will have] a crescendo pattern to it, increases, gets worse. It just - you feel a sense of impending doom like, oh my God this is it. It’s time to act,” Topliceanu said. “People should really call 911 and when in doubt; if there is a doubt, just call 911.”

Topliceanu also stressed do not drive yourself to the hospital. Since a portion of heart attacks end in death within the first hour, driving puts other people at risk from an accident and you may not get to the hospital in time for emergency personnel to help you.

Non-acute symptoms usually happen with physical exertion or emotional stress. The most common symptom is chest discomfort that goes away when you rest. Non-acute symptoms do not usually require an emergency room visit. In these cases, Topliceanu thinks reducing further risk is most important. 

Risk factors for coronary disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, inactivity, obesity, smoking, and stress, according to Topliceanu. 

“What can we do to increase your activity level, you know - cut back on alcohol, don't drink as much, don't smoke, cut the salt the best you can, focus on nutrition, etc.,” Topliceanu said. 

Topliceanu warned diabetics need to be especially aware and careful. Poorly controlled diabetes can have an impaired response to symptoms and might not have the same warning signs as non diabetics.

Even children and young adults, though much more rare, can be at risk. In a lot of cases there is a genetic predisposition to cardiac channelopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or other genetic conditions. Nutritional deficiencies and some medications can aggravate predisposed heart conditions, according to Topliceanu.

In channelopathy, there can be sodium or potassium channel dysfunction which is not unique to the heart. One manifestation can be seizures, according to Topliceanu.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a condition where the heart muscle doesn’t grow properly. Topliceanu said it is a condition that can affect about one in 500 people. Some symptoms can be passing out repeatedly, fatigue or shortness of breath.

If you have a family history of heart disease, consider visiting with your doctor about risks this February.