February is designated as American Heart Month and lots of recognition days help bring attention to heart health. Nurses who specialize in cardiac care (and who might be celebrating Cardiovascular Professional Week this week) are in especially good roles to help people who are coping with heart disease, and they are also excellent educators to help prevent heart disease in the first place.

A recent survey by the Cleveland Clinic revealed the majority of Americans don’t know heart disease is the number one killer of women. While women might typically fear breast cancer or even the random violence that is so prominent on the nightly news, heart disease actually is the most lethal condition. The survey revealed 68 percent of respondents thought something other than heart disease was the leading cause of death. In fact, heart disease is prevalent for both men and women and actually kills one out of every four Americans.

The Cleveland Clinic study also highlighted a deep lack of understanding about heart disease, its causes, and how it can be prevented. The study showed that while “90 percent of heart disease is due to modifiable/controllable risk factors, only 8 percent of Americans know that.”

Millennials, who need to start practicing heart-healthy habits right now, are especially in the dark, according to the survey. Eighty percent couldn’t identify heart disease as a leading killer of women. The same number or respondents didn’t know people should begin cholesterol checks in their 20s.

Heart disease is often called the silent killer for the symptoms that are easy to dismiss, unrecognizable, or even not present until too much damage has been done. This is why nurses are such essential patient advocates. They can help educate patients, family, friends, and community members about how to prioritize their heart health.

The Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association (PCNA) is an excellent resource for nurses who want to help patients stay heart healthy. Because so many other conditions contribute to heart disease including diabetes, depression, and inherited genetics, there are many people who might not think of heart disease as an issue. Lifestyle factors also play a significant role as the cause of heart disease and the prevention of it.

Some health conditions are things people have no control over, but what nurses can do is help them understand what steps and modifications will help reduce risk. Someone with diabetes, for example, needs to pay extra attention to managing that condition with proper medications but they can also manage that condition and help prevent heart troubles with extra efforts toward heart health.

One of the best ways to begin educating people is to make sure patients have accurate information about everything from diet to high blood pressure. With correct information they can begin making changes that will work. For instance, the Cleveland Clinic survey showed that many people don’t understand that a Mediterranean diet is the most helpful for heart health or that an aspirin a day will not prevent heart disease. And with the dangers of vaping becoming more defined, and more urgent, people need to know vaping isn’t a healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes.

If heart health is especially close to your professional interests, you might want to take your expertise to a higher level with the Cardiac Vascular Nurse Certification. If you work with cardiac patients, this qualification is especially important, but it also helps in a more general practice role. With so many people at risk of heart disease, helping patients with prevention can save lives.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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