When February rolls along, Valentine's Day tends to steal the spotlight. But candy hearts aren't the only ones that should be getting national attention. February also happens to be American Heart Month, which instead places the focus on that heart beating inside your chest.

Cardiovascular disease, or CVD, is the No. 1 cause of death for men and women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And when it comes to the probability, men are twice as likely as women to die from preventable CVD.

To help raise awareness about men and heart disease, I spoke to Delray Beach cardiologist Mark Gardner. In this February Fit Life column, Dr. Gardner shares insight about what men might not know when it comes to their hearts.

Boca Mag: How are men different than women when it comes to heart disease?

Mark Gardner: … Sixty percent of people end up having either a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime. Men actually are a little luckier than women in that they often present with the symptoms.

BM: What are symptoms and heart disease risk factors in men?

MG: Half of people have, as their very first symptom of heart disease, a heart attack. So one good thing to tell the reader is don’t ignore your body. [Pay attention] if you’re not feeling right, if you’re winded when you shouldn’t be, if you have discomfort in your chest.

Chest pain is a big thing never to be ignored. That’s especially if you’re at risk. Traditional risk factors are high cholesterol, smoking and high blood pressure – and diabetes is a big one.

[Another risk factor is] family history of premature coronary disease. That has been overstated, unfortunately. Many people think that if any member of their family had a heart problem, they’re going to unfortunately develop one. But the family history correlation is very specific. What we mean by family history and a genetic predisposition for developing premature heart disease is having a male family member develop heart disease before they’re 55 or a female member (first degree relative, including a parent, uncle, aunt or sibling) before the age of 65.

Risks are important for predicting onset of disease.

BM: What else might men not know about heart health?

MG: We have statistical data for trying to figure out who will develop heart disease in their lifetime. We get complacent because the disease is latent for so long. Atherosclerosis develops in your 20s and 30s and 40s, but it just doesn’t present overtly as a problem until your 60s or 70s. So, the disease is already beginning in your body, but it’s latent and you’re asymptomatic.

With the new guidelines that came out in November [2013], physicians are being asked to be more aggressive about preventing this illness from even coming. Up until this new set of guidelines, the mandate has been to react to the presence of the disease. That is … a very encouraging change.

Heart attacks still carry a very real risk of dying. And stroke is the main reason people under the age of 65 become disabled. Stroke is more prevalent in women than men under 65.

The big change is there is a clear mandate for prevention.

BM: What do you want to tell the guys who read the Fit Life?

MG: Even in your 20s and 30s, get a checkup.

Know your body. Know when you’re not feeling right and get that checked—especially if you have a family member who was young when they first developed heart disease. [When he says “developed heart disease,” Gardner is referring to having atherosclerosis or narrowing of the vessels that deliver blood to the heart. Having a heart attack isn't the only sign of heart disease.]

Gardner says preventative treatment of the disease shows huge benefits when it comes to health.

Data shows that those who get into an exercise regimen and drop weight significantly lower their risk of heart disease. Lowering blood pressure also results in a decreased risk of heart attack.

“Lifestyle changes improve outcome,” Gardner says. “Medicines work, too.”

Mark Gardner practices with Tenet Florida Physician Services, at 5035 Via Delray, Delray Beach; 561/637-0500.

For more posts from The Fit Life, click here.

About Lisette

Lisette Hilton, president of Words Come Alive, has had the luxury of reporting on health, fitness and other hot topics for more than 23 years. The longtime Boca Raton resident, University of Florida graduate and fitness buff writes for local, regional and national publications and websites.

Find out more on www.wordscomealive.com.