When you think “heart disease”, an image of an older man clutching his chest might come to mind, but heart disease is actually the number one killer of women. In fact, more women die from heart disease every year than all forms of cancer combined.
While that sounds scary, the great news is that you have the power to protect your heart. Research shows that 80% of heart disease cases can be prevented by staying at a healthy weight, eating well, exercising and not smoking. That means, in addition to knowing your risk factors and your family medical history, your everyday habits really do matter.
How Your Heart Works
Your cardiovascular system is made up of your heart, valves and arteries. The term “cardiovascular disease” refers to all types of disease or dysfunction that can happen in your heart and blood vessels, including arrhythmias (when your heart’s normal beating rhythm is off), atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries due to the buildup of plaque in the artery walls), heart failure (when your heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should or getting enough oxygen) and heart attack—when blood flow to your heart is hindered and damages your heart muscle.
5 Steps to Protect Your Heart
1. Know Your Risk Factors
90% of women have at least one risk factor for heart disease, so investigating your family’s health history and talking to your doctor to pinpoint your risk factors is key.Here’s what to watch out for:
- High blood pressure: A healthy reading is less than 120/80. Exercising regularly and limiting your salt intake (1500mg or less daily) go a long way towards keeping your numbers in check.
- High cholesterol: Your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL; HDL, or “good” cholesterol is should be at least 60 mg/dL.Your total cholesterol (LDL plus HDL) should be less than 200 mg/dL.Triglycerides are another type of fat; your levels should be less than 150 mg/dL.
- Diabetes: Some experts say that having diabetes is the equivalent to having suffered a heart attack: 65 percent of people with diabetes ultimately die from heart disease or stroke.Your fasting blood sugar levels should be less than 100 mg/dL.
- Smoking: Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers, because the toxic chemicals in cigarettes damage blood cells, blood vessels, and the heart itself. About half of all heart attacks in women can be linked to this habit, and just one cigarette per day stiffens your arteries by 25 percent.
- Being overweight: A BMI (body mass index) of 25 or more or a waist measuring more than 35 inches strains your cardiovascular system. Carrying the extra weight in your stomach is particularly dangerous.
- Family history: If heart disease runs in your family, your own risk goes up. First-degree relatives (mother, father, and siblings) matter most—if you have a parent or sibling who had heart disease before age 65, your risk is higher than if they developed it after 65. But also tell your doctor about any heart issues in your extended family (grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.). Besides heart attacks, find out if any family members have experienced angina, bypass surgery, heart failure, strokes, aneurysms, or heart rhythm disorders.
- Pregnancy-related health issues: If you had preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or high blood pressure during pregnancy, you’re at an increased risk for developing heart disease in the five to fifteen years immediately following pregnancy as well as after menopause (usually around age 50).
2. Exercise Regularly
You don’t have to spend hours sweating it out in the gym: Just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on most days can help keep your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, weight and many other cardiovascular disease risk factors in check.Remember these rules:
- Weave at least 30 minutes of exercise into your daily schedule. It doesn’t have to happen all at once: Three 10-minute walks count, too.
- Add strength training. Aim for 20 minutes twice a week of working with free weights, resistance bands or doing exercises in which you work against your own body weight (crunches and push-ups, for example). This not only helps keep your heart and cardiovascular system strong, but it also helps you build muscle, which burns more calories and revs your metabolism.
3. Eat Healthy
Research shows that eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, high-fiber whole grains, fish, and also including “good” monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like nuts, olives, avocado, and olive and canola oils—can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Follow these healthy eating guidelines:
- Go fish. Have at least two 3.5-ounce servings of oily fish like salmon at least twice a week.
- Go bright. Fill half your plate with a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables—they contain important nutrients and disease-fighting antioxidants. Tomatoes, in particular, contain lycopene and bananas and are high in potassium, which helps keep blood pressure low and can actually offset the negative effects of sodium. Aim for at least 4.5 cups daily.
- Go for whole grains. Swap out white carbohydrates (white bread, white rice) for whole grain varieties including oats, brown rice, whole wheat and whole grain breads and pastas. When it comes to cereal, make sure the first ingredient is a whole grain—oats, whole wheat, whole grain corn—and look for ones that contain at least 3 grams of fiber.TIP: To ease into eating whole grains, follow the ½ rule: Use ½ regular pasta, ½ whole wheat pasta.
- Love legumes, nuts and seeds. All nuts—walnuts, cashews, almonds, pecans—offer heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Just watch portion sizes (stick to a small handful) since they’re fairly high in calories (1 ounce of almonds has 170 calories). Sunflower and pumpkin seeds also have healthy fats, and legumes (beans, lentils, soybeans) also contain heart-healthy nutrients as well as being an alternate source of protein that’s low in saturated fat.TIP: Rinse canned beans to reduce their sodium content.
- Limit red meat. It can absolutely be a part of a heart-healthy diet, but experts recommend having red meat just two times a week. Also aim to limit processed meats (hot dogs, luncheon meats, etc.) to no more than two servings per week.
4. Get Regular Relaxation
Stress is unavoidable, of course—and not all stress is bad. It’s how you manage it that matters. When you’re under constant tension, your body produces more adrenaline and cortisol, which can increase your blood pressure, blood sugar and lead to blood vessel damage. To mitigate the negative effect of stress on your heart (and body):
- Take 10 “me” minutes daily. Do something you enjoy—whether it’s reading a book, listening to music or even better, calling a close friend.
- Get your zzz’s. Some studies have shown that people who don’t get good sleep are at an increased risk for a heart attack. Aim for at least six hours nightly.
5. Learn The Symptoms Of A Heart Attack
While chest pain is the hallmark of a heart attack in women and men, women are more likely to experience other symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting and back or jaw pain. Call 911 immediately if you experience any of the following:
- Chest discomfort—uncomfortable pressure, fullness or pain—that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw or stomach.Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs include suddenly breaking out into a cold sweat along with nausea or lightheadedness, increased fatigue, intestinal discomfort, heartburn and loss of concentration.
Ask your doctor
Start the heart health conversation with your doctor at your next checkup. Discuss your daily lifestyle, including how much you exercise, if (and how often) you’re stressed out, how much you sleep each night, your regular eating habits and if you smoke—and be honest! Depending on your personal and family medical history, your doctor may perform additional screenings and/or monitor your heart health more closely.
Screenings Your Doctor May Recommend
Since heart disease affects women very differently than men, doctors often look for different signs and symptoms on these tests. Also, there are ways the technician can take to make these screenings safer (and minimize your radiation exposure, for example). So be sure to ask your doctor about any precautionary steps.
- EKG: An electrocardiogram tracks your heart’s electrical activity, which controls they rhythm of your heartbeat. The EKG shows how fast your heart is beating, the strength of the electrical signals and whether or not your heartbeat is steady. Doctors use an EKG to detect a wide variety of heart issues including an arrhythmia, heart attack and heart failure.
- Echocardiogram: This test uses sound waves to create a live image of your heart so your doctor can see your heart beating as well as your heart valves and chambers. An echo is a non-invasive test that allows your doctor to get a closer look at your heart and check for issues, including damage to the heart muscle (from a heart attack, for example), atrial fibrillation, a heart murmur and congenital heart disease.
- Stress test: The traditional form of this screening is an exercise stress test which monitors how well your heart works while you’re exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike. One key is seeing how your cardiovascular system responds when you exercise at a high intensity. Also available are pharmacological stress tests, in which you take a drug that has the same effect on your heart as exercise. Nuclear imaging, in which a small amount of a radioactive liquid is injected into your bloodstream, measures blood flow and heart activity when you’re at rest and active. This type of test is also used to detect damage to the heart muscle or circulation/blood flow isssues.
- Angiogram: This test takes an X-ray of your blood vessels to check how well blood is flowing through them and can pick up any blockages.
How North Shore-LIJ Can Help
At North Shore-LIJ, we offer the highest level of care for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. Our multi-disciplinary team has earned a regional and national reputation for quality cardiac and thoracic care with superior patient outcomes. We offer customized preventive services, including physical exams, risk assessments and state-of-the-art diagnostic testing as well as the latest treatment options. For more information on our full range of cardiac and thoracic care, click here.
Focusing on the unique needs of women, our women’s heart health program provides an integrated approach to all major heart conditions across the life span. Our clinicians have a special interest in women’s health and educating women in the community to actively participate in optimizing their heart health. To make an appointment with one of our women’s heart health physicians, contact the Katz Institute for Women’s Health Resource Center at (855) 850 KIWH ( 5494).