What Women of All Ages Need to Know About Heart Disease

Heart disease is the #1 killer of women, but it can be managed and sometimes prevented.

By Birdie Varnedore, M.D., SparkPeople.com Resident Medical Expert and Member

Happy American Heart Month!

February's best-known day is Valentine's Day, and what with all the heart-shaped things associated with that occasion, it is the perfect month to highlight heart health and share with you what you can do to protect your most precious asset. Your heart will be there for you during all of your life's adventures, but heart disease is a big threat to all of us! Heart disease is America's number one cause of death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 1 in 3 deaths in the US is from heart disease and stroke
  • That's equal to 2,200 deaths per day.
  • 2 million heart attacks and strokes occur each year
  • 80,000,000 adults are affected by heart disease
  • Heart disease & stroke cost the nation $444 billion/year in health care costs and lost economic productivity.

How can you start taking care of your heart? By being mindful of your lifestyle--and knowing that lasting change is not accomplished without knowledge and a little work. You will find that SparkPeople is a great resource to help you accomplish not only your weight-loss goals but also your heart-health goals! (Visit SparkPeople's Healthy Heart Condition Center today.)

In the not too distant past, heart disease was erroneously labeled as a "man's" disease. The seemingly healthy father that suddenly dies of a heart attack leaving young children and a wife behind is a stereotypical nightmare scenario. Views like this have placed too much emphasis on men in heart-health research, and, as a result, both treatment guidelines and public health initiatives are skewed toward men.

But are you aware of the prevalence of heart disease in women? More than 42 million women are currently living with some form of cardiovascular disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in America!

To change America's perception that heart disease is a "man's disease," the American Heart Association in 2004 created the campaign Go Red for Women to bring awareness to this largely preventative disease. Efforts such as Go Red for Women Day work because studies show that when women are aware of their risk for heart disease they are much more likely to make the effort to make the necessary lifestyle changes.

The same simple, lasting changes you're implementing as a way to lose weight will also help you keep your heart healthy: eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, don't smoke (or quit if you do), and limit your alcohol intake.

So, as women, what can we do specifically to improve our heart health? What should we be doing to keep our ticker ticking?

What Women Need to Know at Every Age

We're never too young to start taking care of our hearts. As we grow older, age-specific guidelines and recommendations exist (and I've listed them below), but there is plenty that women of every age need to know to assess our risk for heart disease and keep our risk of developing the disease as low as possible.

Numbers you need to know and target values:
To learn many of the numbers listed below, you'll need to visit your health-care provider.

  1. Blood pressure: less than 120/80
  2. Total cholesterol: less than 200
  3. LDL "bad cholesterol": less than 100 (some may need it less than 70)
  4. HDL "good cholesterol": greater than 50
  5. Triglycerides: less than 150
  6. Glucose (HbA1c): less than 7%
  7. Body mass index (BMI) 18.5-24.9
  8. Waist circumference: less than 35 inches

Exercise recommendations: The AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (about 20 minutes a day--and divided into two 10-minute sessions is fine) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. For weight loss and weight maintenance, you may require up to an hour of exercise on most days of the week.

Stop smoking. This is absolutely non-negotiable. Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the United States. Please get help if you are unable to do so on your own.

Eat a heart-healthy diet, as presented by the AHA:

  1. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole-grain and high-fiber foods.
  2. Eat fish at least twice a week, preferably oily fish, or talk to your provider about taking omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil) supplements. (Pregnant women should avoid fish with high mercury levels.)
  3. Do your best to eat less salt. Limit sodium to 1,500 mg per day.
  4. Avoid trans-fatty acids. No trans fats is the goal.
  5. Eat very little saturated fat (such as fat from meat, cheese, and butter); less than 7 percent of your calories a day
  6. Drink no more than one alcoholic drink a day. No alcohol is best!
Healthier Hearts in Every Decade

In your 20s: Thinking about preventing heart disease is usually not on the radar of a woman in her 20s. But should you be concerned about your heart as a 20 year old? Absolutely! Heart disease can begin in childhood. Now is the time to learn how to eat a healthy diet and to establish a consistent exercise routine. Smoking must be stopped and certainly not started at this age. Obtaining or maintaining a healthy weight is a must as well. It is also important to learn about your family history so that your physician can be on the lookout for hereditary early-onset disease. Getting a physical and knowing your numbers is important for keeping your future risk low.

In your 30s: Many women at this age have families and are putting themselves last on the list. Excess stress, poor diet and lack of exercise can become a concern. Eating a healthy diet and exercising consistently is crucial at this age. If you have not yet started your healthy lifestyle plan, it's not too late! Again, smoking must be stopped and is non-negotiable. Continue to get regular checkups so that you can know your numbers and keep your risk of heart disease low.

In your 40s: Women who may have put off living a healthy lifestyle may start to develop high blood pressure and diabetes. If left unchecked, that gradual creep of weight gain can land you in the overweight or obese category. If you have yet to start getting your annual checkups, it is not too late. Know your numbers and reduce your risk factors. Lose weight if your BMI is too high. Stop smoking now if you have been unable to quit.

In your 50s: The number of women having heart attacks dramatically rises after age 55. Women who have kept their numbers in check and remained consistent with their healthy diet and exercise by age 50 may never develop heart disease. Consistency in diet and exercise need to be maintained. Smoking must be stopped. Exercise limitations may become more prevalent as arthritic diseases become more common and modifications may need to be made. Regular checkups with your primary-care physician continue to be important as even more women are diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol.

In your 60s and beyond: It's healthy diet and exercise again! It's also never too late to benefit from smoking cessation. You might need to modify your workouts, but it is still important to aim to reach your weekly exercise goals.

The bottom line:
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in women. More than 200,000 women die each year from heart attacks alone, which is 5 times greater than deaths from breast cancer. Lifestyle modifications can greatly reduce and in many cases prevent heart disease.

As I mentioned, efforts such as Go Red for Women work because just making women aware that they have unhealthy risk factors leads them to take preventative action. So, now that you know a little more about what you can do to prevent heart disease, go see your primary-care physician and get to know your numbers. The earlier you start the better, but it is never too late to benefit from living a heart healthy lifestyle!

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Are you keeping your heart healthy? What steps have you taken to improve your health?

Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.