Wear Red for Women's Health: How to Keep The Hearts You Cherish Ticking

Feb. 2, is a day of celebration that very few people talk about.

We don’t buy presents or send flowers or even tell family members and friends how much we love them. However, in some ways, this special day is far more important than any other holiday on the calendar because Feb. 2 is the American Heart Association’s National Wear Red Day to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease in women.

Most women can tell you about the dangers of breast cancer, but few women truly know how vulnerable they are to cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke. An American Heart Association study of more than 1,000 women, conducted in 2003 by Harris Interactive, Inc., demonstrated just what little understanding women have of the problem. Only 13 percent of the women polled in the study believed that heart disease and stroke are the greatest health threat to women.

What was even more alarming is that despite the fact that minority women are at the greatest risk of death from heart disease and stroke, they were even less aware of the severity of the problem than white women.

In fact, the statistics are far more startling than most of us realize.

According to the American Heart Association:

— Cardiovascular disease (CVD) ranks first among all disease categories in hospital discharges for women.

— Nearly 39 percent of all female deaths in America occur from CVD, which includes coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.

— CVD is a particularly important problem among minority women. The death rate due to CVD is substantially higher in black women than in white women.

— In 2003, CVD claimed the lives of 483,842 females; cancer (all forms combined) 267,902.

— In 2003, coronary heart disease claimed the lives of 233,886 females compared with 41,566 lives from breast cancer and 67,894 from lung cancer.

— 38 percent of women compared with 25 percent of men will die within one year after a heart attack.

— Stroke is a leading cause of serious, long-term disability; an estimated 15 to 30 percent of stroke survivors are permanently disabled.

Misperceptions still exist that CVD is not a real problem for women, but if you are a woman, you don’t have to be one of these statistics. It’s not too late to make the changes necessary to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Here are some steps you can take to get heart healthy:

— Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet. A heart-healthy diet is one that's low in fat, cholesterol, and salt, and high in fruits, vegetables, grains, and fiber.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says you can still have the occasional slice of pizza or burger, just eliminate the pizza toppings and that side of fries, and you eliminate fat. The FDA also recommends that you eliminate fat from your diet by reading the Nutrition Facts label on the foods you buy. They say that foods that provide 5 percent of the daily value of fat or less are low in fat, and foods that are labeled as providing 20 percent or more of the daily value are high in fat.

— Get enough exercise. Exercise improves heart function and lowers blood pressure and blood cholesterol. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that you get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week.

The 30 minutes don't have to be done all at once, but can be broken up into 10-minute segments throughout your day. They recommend walking because it’s an easy way to exercise, and brisk walking gets your heart rate up and gives you a good workout.

— Control your blood pressure. Poor diet and lack of physical activity contribute to high blood pressure. The NHLBI says table salt also increases average levels of blood pressure, and its effect is greater in some people than in others.

Most importantly, monitor your blood pressure levels through regular visits to your doctor.

— Control your cholesterol levels. Only a doctor can measure your levels of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad cholesterol," should be less than 100 mg/dL. The designation mg/dL means milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good cholesterol," protects your arteries from bad cholesterol buildup, so the higher the HDL, the better. Your HDL levels should be 60 mg/dL or more to help lower the risk of heart disease.

— Stop smoking. According to the NHLBI, in the first year that you stop smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease drops dramatically. Over time, your risk level will eventually return to that of someone who has never smoked.

There’s one more thing you can do this Feb. 2 that can make a significant difference in the life of a woman you love. Log on to http://www.goredforwomen.org/go_red_in_your_own_fashion/shop_go_red.html and download a free copy of the American Heart Association’s brochure "Go Red For Women" and send it to her.

It’s the only valentine you need to send when you care enough to save a life.

Foxnews.com Health contributor Maria Esposito contributed to this report.

For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.