It’s never too early to check out your heart health. At your doctor examination, you may be focusing on the need for a mammogram, a PSA test or a pap smear. These are critical tests and can help detect an early cancer, but don’t be shy about asking your doctor to examine your heart. After all, it’s the organ that keeps you alive – second by second.

Dr. Renee Bullock-Palmer, director of The Women’s Cardiac Center at Deborah Heart and Lung Center, says heart disease can show up in both younger and older patients. “We definitely are seeing a younger population of patients presenting to us with their first heart attack,” says Bullock-Palmer. “The poor habits adopted during the childhood years tend to come to bear as we enter adulthood. I know there has definitely been an increase in childhood obesity in the United States.”

Bullock-Palmer, in an interview with Men and Health: It’s a Guy Thing, says obesity can lead to other diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension and, ultimately, heart disease. “Any form of diabetes ultimately will increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, patients with diabetes are treated as what we call a coronary artery disease risk equivalent,” says Bullock-Palmer.

A heart attack can have different symptoms in men and women, adds Bullock-Palmer. The classic symptom of a heart attack is chest pressure, which tends to move to the neck and arm. Bullock-Palmer says, “Subtle features tend to present more often in females (shortness of breath related to exertion). Females may not present with chest pressure, but may complain of symptoms similar to heartburn (especially upon exertion).”

For woman and men, there are risk factors for heart disease: Among them are physical inactivity, obesity, high cholesterol and smoking. Bullock-Palmer says risk factors we can’t do anything about include age, genetics and, to some degree, gender.

The focus needs to be on prevention. And it’s never too early to start guarding against heart disease. According to Bullock-Palmer, the cornerstone of prevention is a healthy lifestyle. That includes physical activity, such as at least 30 minutes (most days) of aerobic activity to get the heart pumping. A healthy diet is key. You should avoid trans fats, processed foods, sugary treats and sodas, foods with high cholesterol and high fructose corn syrup. Instead, focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. Whole-grain and high-fiber foods are good for the body. Avoid fried food. Baked and broiled foods are better options.

Also, check your blood pressure and cholesterol at your next doctor visit. Discuss with your doctor your family medical history and consider taking a body mass index test.

If you find it’s just too hard to remove yourself from the TV or computer, Bullock-Palmer recommends, “Get on your feet and start getting physically active.”

Dr. Bullock-Palmer recommends these two sites, both sponsored by the American Heart Association. Learn more about heart health at:

Visit Dr. Bullock-Palmer at