Heart disease is often thought of as a man's problem, but did you know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States?

It causes 1 in 3 deaths among women each year. By comparison, breast cancer causes 1 in 31 deaths annually. Heart disease actually kills more women than all cancers combined.

Dr. Kathy Magliato, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Saint John's Health Center in Los Angeles, put it very succinctly.

"The most common way women present with heart disease is dead, dead on arrival. Women tend to downplay their symptoms, and they tend to wait longer to come to the hospital, and that's why they die at home."

Since February is American Heart Month, it's a great time to focus on the women who are the heart of our families our grandmothers, mothers, sisters and daughters.

The way women get heart disease differs somewhat from men, so the symptoms we experience are different as well. For women, heart disease often occurs at the level of the tiny vessels that supply the blood to the heart.

Men, on the other hand, typically get blockages in the larger blood vessels of the heart.

Often when we think of someone suffering a heart attack, we imagine an individual clutching his or her chest in pain. In reality, only half the women who have a heart attack have chest pain.

Women are more likely than men to have heart attack symptoms not directly related to chest pain, including fatigue, shortness of breath, indigestion or nausea, jaw or throat pain, and arm pain, especially in the left arm.

Since these symptoms can easily masquerade as other health issues, it's important to understand your risk factors and have a strong partnership with your doctor.

Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, second hand smoke, obesity, being physically inactive, mental stress and depression, a family history of early heart disease, birth control pills and age.

Also remember that while women generally are diagnosed with heart disease later than men, heart disease doesn't only affect older people.

If you have experienced complications with pregnancy such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or pregnancy induced hypertension, you may be considered at risk for heart disease.

You can get an idea about your own risk and what you can do about your risk factors by taking an online assessment from the American Heart Association at www.goredforwomen.org.

We all need to know our risk factors because with today's busy lifestyles, we often put off taking care of ourselves to take care of family and friends. That's why it's important to take care of you so that you can take care of others! Here are some simple reminders to get you started:

Ÿ Talk to your doctor about your risk and what you can do to improve your heart health

Ÿ Get regular physical activity

Ÿ Make healthy food choices

Ÿ Know your numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.)

Ÿ Quit smoking

You may also have access to programs through your workplace or your insurer to help you get on the road to better health.

For example, if you are a member of Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, you have full access to our Blue Health Solutions program, which offers tools and support in all areas of health management, including reducing your risks for heart disease.

Most importantly, if you know you are high risk and be aware that many women have at least one risk factor and you experience the symptoms described above, don't wait. Listen to your body and see a doctor.

February is the month when we focus on our heart, our most vital organ that beats an average of 100,000 times each day. By taking good care of your heart, you're making an investment in your health, in your family and in your future.

Be there to take care of yourself and your loved ones this February and many more to come.

Dr. Nina M. Taggart is Vice President of Clinical Operations and Chief Medical Officer at Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.