When you get all the basics into line - blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, waist size, and not smoking - you can reduce your odds of having a heart attack or needing bypass surgery by 80 percent, says Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., medical director of the Women's Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. And knowing your particular vulnerabilities lets you target risk-cutting strategies that will help most.
Measure your middle. A tummy pooch, even if you're not overweight, signals the presence of vicious visceral fat - blubber wrapped around internal organs that pumps hormones, inflammatory chemicals, and fatty acids to your heart, liver, and all your cells. This fat raises blood pressure, makes cells resistant to insulin, and accelerates the growth of gunky plaque in artery walls. How big is too big? In one Harvard study of over 44,000 women, a waist measuring 35 or more inches doubled the risk of dying early from heart disease, compared to one of less than 28 inches. Also, be sure to check your body mass index with our handy BMI calculator. If you're overweight, dropping as little as 10 percent of your weight cuts your risk, since belly fat is the first to go. Also, a combo of aerobic exercise and weight training best targets ab flab. (Related: 10 Minutes to a Flat Belly)
Fill in your family history. In a University of Texas Southwestern study of 2,404 people, a family history of premature heart attacks doubled a woman's odds of having plaque in her heart arteries. Which family member counts, too: Having a parent with heart disease raises your own risk significantly, especially if he or she was stricken young (before 55 for your dad, 65 for your mom). But because you share genes and often the same legacy of early eating and exercise habits with your siblings, if a brother or sister has heart disease, your risk is even greater, the landmark Framingham Heart Study has reported. This week, find out who in your family has or had heart problems, what kind, and at what age they began, then bring the info to your next doctor's visit. (Related: Printable Medical History Forms)
Commit to giving up cigarettes. You probably know that smoking increases your risk of heart disease. But you may not realize that even social smoking - as few as one to four cigarettes a day - can almost triple your chances of a fatal heart attack. You can find help at numerous online sites, including the American Cancer Society, Go Red for Women, and American Lung Association. By the end of this week, choose your plan and mark a start date. You may discover that you need to enlist your doctor's help. A new study reported that almost 75 percent of current smokers trying to kick the habit are now highly nicotine dependent, a jump of 32 percent since 1989. It may be that cigarette manufacturers have been increasing nicotine levels, says Norman H. Edelman, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. Or it could be that less-dependent smokers have already quit successfully, leaving a "hard core" group still looking for help. In any case, in order to avoid relapse, these people may well need intensive treatment. (Related: Women and Lung Cancer)
Your Next Moves
You can't really understand your risk for heart disease - or use that information as a motivator - unless you know your numbers: blood pressure and cholesterol levels (including total, plus LDL and HDL cholesterol levels), your triglycerides, and your fasting blood sugar. If you've been tested within the past year, call your doctor's office for the results; then you can plug the numbers into the Go Red for Women Heart CheckUp to see where you stand. If you haven't been tested, schedule an appointment now. "And make sure that your doctor gives you real numbers," says Dr. Bennett. "Don't accept 'everything's fine.'"
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