Every year, organizations all over the country take the month of February to raise awareness of heart health, and it has become American Heart Month. The awareness is greatly needed as cardiovascular disease continues to be the #1 killer of men and women in the United States.

It's serious stuff. Caused by cholesterol build-ups (know as 'plaques') in the arteries, Coronary Artery Disease will cause a buildup of pressure in the arteries and possibly create a situation where blood flow is blocked. When the blood flow is severely reduced (or completely stopped), a heart attack can occur.

People across the country need to be more aware of how they can effectively reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease - and have arteries free flowing.

1) Stop smoking.

2) Exercise.

3) Eat right - stay away from high cholesterol, fatty foods.

All three of these you can do right now.

Sometimes there are other items that put a person at risk that you can't do anything about. These include a family history of heart disease, getting older, and being a man. (Cardiovascular disease is more prevalent in males.)

The numbers show African Americans are at more risk of heart disease. Research has indicated that African Americans have the highest prevalence of the modifiable risks including high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. That's not a good triangle to be in the middle of.

If you've never been around a person having a heart attack or have not had one before, it's not always like you see on TV - heart attacks that are sudden and extremely intense. There are instances when this is the case, but most heart attacks start very slowly, with milder symptoms that people simply cast off as no big deal.

The symptoms of a heart attack:

1) Pain in the upper body

2) Pain in the chest

3) Pain in the back

4) Pain in the arm

5) Pain in the neck and jaw

6) Shortness of breath

7) Fatigue

8) Nausea

9) Vomiting

10) Swelling

As the symptoms can at times be vague, so people aren't sure if anything is wrong and they don't know what is wrong. Unfortunately, this leads to people waiting too long before getting help, and that's how they get into real trouble. Don't ignore the symptoms - if you don't feel right, your body is trying to tell you something isn't how it should be. Listen to your body.

Take this all seriously - and do what you can do to beat heart disease. Stay on top of your condition with regular visits to your physician and do what your doctor tells you to do. And take care of what you can control - eating right, exercise, etc.

- Danika Hickman, MD