Being more heart aware isn’t simply knowing the signs that might mean you have heart disease. It also means understanding the factors that can increase your risk for heart disease as a woman.
The chances of developing high blood pressure increase if you’re overweight, have an unhealthy diet, drink excessive amounts of alcohol or don’t exercise regularly. High cholesterol, diabetes and a family history of high blood pressure can also raise your risk1. You can lower your blood pressure significantly through a healthy diet, including reduced saturated fat and sodium in the foods you eat. Maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, limiting the amount of alcohol you drink and not smoking can also lower your blood pressure.
Knowing the difference between good and bad cholesterol is important. Women with high total cholesterol are twice as likely to develop heart disease2. Specifically, women with the highest level of bad cholesterol (LDL) are three times more at risk3, and those with the lowest level of good cholesterol (HDL) have a six-fold risk4. Bad, LDL cholesterol steadily increases after menopause due to the drop in estrogen5. To reduce bad cholesterol levels and increase good ones, eat a diet low in saturated fat, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, limit the amount of animal fats and dairy products you consume, and add more fish to your diet. Beware of fats and oils that have been processed to be solid or spreadable at room temperature; these are called hydrogenated vegetable oils and should be avoided. See the chart below for optimal cholesterol numbers.
Stress and Mental Health
Women with symptoms of depression are 50% more likely to suffer heart disease6. Women are also more prone to depression than men after a heart attack, which can then increase their risk of having another attack. Because stress causes strain on your body, it’s important to know your own body. Maintain a positive attitude by releasing stress through exercise or talking over problems with a friend or a licensed mental health professional.
Smoking causes plaque to form in blood vessels and may cause clots to form. It also reduces good HDL cholesterol, increases blood pressure and may cause irregular heart rhythms that could lead to cardiac arrest. The bottom line: women who smoke are at a much higher risk of developing heart disease. Your risk of developing heart disease decreases by 33% just two years after you stop smoking. And your risk is lowered to the same level as a non-smoker in 10-14 years after you quit8. Counseling, smoking cessation programs, nicotine replacement treatments and other resources are available to help you stop smoking.
Obesity and Inactivity
Women who are overweight are at greater risk of developing heart disease, even if they don’t have other risk factors. One measure of body fat is your BMI—Body Mass Index. BMI Calculator and BMI Table resources are available to help you find your Body Mass Index:
Even minimal weight loss helps reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as controlling diabetes. Try to maintain or lose weight through an appropriate balance of physical activity, caloric intake and support programs. In terms of exercise, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (like a brisk walk) every day can help you lose weight and keep it off.
Know Your Numbers8
If you don’t know your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and other important numbers, find out. It’s easy, and it can help you take control of your heart health.
< 100 mg/dl
> 60 mg/dl
< 40 mg/dl
< 150 mg/dl
> 150 mg/dl
< 120/80 mmHg
Fasting blood sugar
< 110 mg/dl
110 mg/dl or higher
18.5 to 24.9
Talk To Your Doctor
The best source of information about heart health is a discussion with your doctor or health care provider. Here are a few questions to ask:
- What is the difference between heart disease, heart attack and heart failure?
- What are my personal risk factors for heart disease?
- What kind of physical exercise is right for me?
- Based on my history and risk factors, what specifically should I do to lower my risk of heart disease?
- What kinds of tests are used to diagnose heart disease?
- What are my treatment options?
If you have symptoms, insist on treatment. And if you feel your symptoms are not being treated aggressively enough, seek an additional medical opinion. Take charge of your health, and you'll be surprised at what you can do.
1 American Heart Association. Understand Your Risk for High Blood Pressure. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/UnderstandYourRiskforHighBloodPressure/Understand-Your-Risk-for-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_002052_Article.jsp. Accessed April 10, 2014.
2 Lloyd-Jones DM, et al. (2003). Arch Intern Med;163:1966-1972.
3 Gordon DJ, et al. (1989). Circulation;79:8-15.
4 Lloyd-Jones, D., et al. (2009). Circulation, 119:e21-e181.
5 Shai I, et al. (2004). Circulation;110:2824-2830.
6 Whang W, Kubzansky LD, et al. (2009).J Am Coll Cardiol; 53:950-8.
7 American Heart Association. Smoking and Cardiovascular Disease. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/QuitSmoking/QuittingResources/Smoking-Cardiovascular-Disease_UCM_305187_Article.jsp. Accessed April 10, 2014.
8 American Heart Association. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics, 2004 Update.