February is American Heart Month. Last week, the American Heart Association announced the great news that new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that, since 1999, death rates from heart disease are down and astonishing 25.8 percent, while deaths from stroke are down by 24.4 percent. These savings, according to the folks who track these things, means that in 2005, 160,000 lives were saved. How big is Barstow? 21,000? If my math is correct, that means that 8 Barstows were saved in 2005. Wow!

While we should be throwing confetti to celebrate this amazing accomplishment, we should not forget that heart attack remains the No. 1 killer in America while stroke ranks No. 3.

One of the most important advancements in the treatment of heart attack and stroke is in getting the patient to the hospital quickly. It is, therefore, important to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke so that you can act quickly to save a life.

On TV shows and in movies, someone clutches their chest, gasps for breath and drops helplessly to the floor. Obviously they've had a heart attack. Unfortunately, the signs are not always so clear. A recent study showed that women had symptoms of serious heart disease six months before their heart attack. Women die much more frequently of heart attack than men do. For one thing, women are about 10 years older than men when they have their first heart attack since estrogen protects them until menopause. Women are also less likely to seek help when they experience heart symptoms making it later in the crisis when they finally get care and often too late to save them.

You would think nature would have thought to give us some unmistakable indicator that an important muscle like the heart is in trouble, but alas, there is no bright red button that pops out. The classic symptoms of heart attack - crushing chest pain and left arm pain - are symptoms commonly experienced by middle aged, white men.

Among women and other races, the symptoms are often more subtle. Indigestion that does not calm down when taking antacid medication, a sense of fullness or squeezing pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes are common signs. Often the pain comes in waves gaining strength in time.

Pain may spread to the neck, the jaw, or run down the arm. Lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath are serious heart signs. Anxiety, nervousness or a feeling of impending doom should be red flags when combined with other symptoms. You may be pale, sweating profusely, and have an irregular or fast heart rate. For many women, the only sign they were having a heart attack was an overwhelming sense of fatigue - they were so tired they couldn't get up from the chair.

Heart pain is generally not sharp, stabbing pain. It may start as a mild discomfort that you tell yourself you can live with. You may be thinking people will think you are a wimp or a cry-baby if you go running to the doctor thinking it's your heart every time you have a little pain. The pain does get worse over time, but by the time the pain is so bad you can't ignore it, irreversible damage may have already been done.

If you have one or more of these symptoms, time is of the essence. Heart symptoms are a 911 emergency. If someone with you can get you to the hospital quicker, get going! Do not drive yourself. Losing consciousness behind the wheel puts others at risk as well.

If you have had these symptoms before, but you think they went away, it is imperative that you consult with a cardiologist immediately. You may have already had your first small heart attack. You will not be so lucky next time. There have been amazing advances in the treatment of heart disease. With proper medical supervision, you can live a long healthy life even after heart attack.

The symptoms of a stroke are more dramatic than those of a heart attack. Often, the symptoms come on suddenly. Often, stroke victims cannot speak for themselves. Learn to recognize a stroke by remembering these three things: Ask your friend to smile. A stroke causes the face to move asymmetrically. When the patient smiles, one side of the face will move normally while the other will droop. They will be unable to pull up the corner of the mouth on the affected side. Ask your friend to raise both arms. While shoulder pain and dysfunction can cause difficulty raising one arm, the affects of a stroke will often leave the arm motionless. Ask your friend to repeat a simple sentence. If your friend can't repeat back the sentence or appears to not understand what you are asking, presume they are having a stroke. If you notice any of these symptoms in a friend or loved one, call 911 immediately. Quick administration of clot busting medications may allow your friend to return to life quickly and without long lasting disability.

The American Heart Association is a terrific resource for information regarding heart disease. Use their website to educate yourself about changes you can make to ensure your continued good health and remember them when you make your annual charitable donations.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Jackie Randa is a physical therapist who owns Back on Track in Barstow. She can be contacted at jranda@aol.com.