If you have a heart, heart disease could be a problem for you.
Many women think heart disease is a man’s disease and often don’t take their risk seriously— or personally. Additionally, women often place a higher priority on the health and well-being of their families rather than take the time necessary to care for their own health.
The good news: Heart disease is a problem you can do something about. The first step is to learn your personal risk. Then take steps to improve your heart health and reduce your chances of developing heart disease. It’s never too early— or too late— to take action to prevent and control your risk factors. Women can lower their risk of heart disease by as much as 82 percent just by leading a healthy lifestyle. In most cases, that means following a heart healthy eating plan, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking.
It is important to realize that heart disease is a lifelong condition— once you get it, you will always have it. Heart disease develops over time and can start as early as the teenage years. Heart disease doesn’t stop developing either— unless treated, it continues to worsen. Yet, only 13 percent of women consider heart disease to be their own greatest health risk, and an astonishing 80 percent of midlife women have one or more risk factors for heart disease. This is why it is so vital to take action now to prevent this disease.
But, why does your lifestyle matter? Because it affects many of the risk factors for heart disease. Risk factors are conditions or habits that increase the chances of developing a disease or having it worsen. Having just one risk factor can increase a woman’s chances of developing heart disease twofold. Having two risk factors increases the chance fourfold, and having three or more risk factors increases a woman’s chance of developing heart disease more than tenfold.
There are two types of heart disease risk factors— those you can’t change, such as age (55 or older for women) and family history of early heart disease, and those you can control. Risk factors you can control include:
There is simply no safe way to smoke. Cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as lung cancer and other serious diseases.
If you are overweight or obese, you are more likely to develop heart disease, even if you have no other risk factors. Being overweight also increases the risks for stroke, congestive heart failure and other health conditions.
Not getting regular physical activity increases your risk for heart disease, as well as other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease. A healthy blood pressure is less than 120/80mmHg. Blood pressure is considered “high” when it is 140/90 or above.
High blood cholesterol
High blood cholesterol affects more than 50 million women. Young women tend to have lower cholesterol levels than young men. But between the ages of 45 and 55, a woman’s level begins to rise higher than a man’s. After age 55, this “cholesterol gap” continues to widen. A desirable total cholesterol reading is less than 200 mg/dL, borderline high is 200-239 mg/dL, and high is 240 mg/dL and above.
Diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and other diseases. You are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if you are overweight, physically inactive or have a family history of diabetes.
Reducing Your Risk
Women often think that making lifestyle changes is an overwhelming job. But it doesn’t have to be. Make changes one step at a time. Set realistic goals. Get encouragement from friends and family. Try these tips to get started for heart healthy living, and remember that taking action now can mean a longer, healthier life for you and those you love.
- Don’t smoke, and if you do, quit. Participate in an organized program to help quit smoking. These programs are offered by many hospitals, health organizations and workplaces.
- Aim for a healthy weight. Adopt a healthy, lower-calorie eating plan. Aim to lose no more than ½ to two pounds per week.
- Get moving. Make a commitment to be more physically active. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most, preferably all, days of the week.
- Eat for heart health. Choose a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and moderate in total fat.
- Know your numbers. Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure, cholesterol (total HDL, LDL, triglycerides) and blood glucose. Work with your doctor to improve any numbers that are not normal.
Getting answers to these questions will give women vital information about their heart health and what they can do to improve it.
- What is my risk for heart disease?
- What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it?
- What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, LDL or “bad” cholesterol, HDL or “good” cholesterol and triglycerides.) What do they mean for me, and what do I need to do about them?
- What is my “body mass index” and my waist measurement? Do they indicate that I need to lose weight for my health?
- What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean I’m at risk for diabetes?
- What other screening tests for heart disease do I need? How often should I return for check-ups for my heart health?
- What can you do to help me quit smoking?
- How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart?
- What is a heart healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist to learn more about healthy eating?
- How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack?
The Heart Truth, a national campaign sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), warns women about heart disease and provides tools to help them take action against its risk factors. The campaign message is paired with an arresting visual— the Red Dress— designed to warn women that heart disease is their number-one killer. The Heart Truth created and introduced the Red Dress as the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness in 2002 to deliver an urgent wake-up call to American women. The Red Dress reminds women of the need to protect their heart health, and inspires them to take action. Visit www.hearttruth.com.
As director of NHLBI, I’ve had the privilege of sharing The Heart Truth with millions of women. I am thrilled that women all across the country are wearing the Red Dress Pin, sharing heart health messages with loved ones and friends, and taking charge of their health. The Heart Truth campaign continues to strengthen women’s personal connection to heart disease, while educating women about the seriousness of having one or more factors for heart disease. I encourage you to share this information with women you know. Together, we can ensure that all women know The Heart Truth.