Surveys show that few women think heart disease is their greatest health threat. Unfortunately, it's the nation's number one killer, and women are its prime target. Over one-third of the women who die in the U.S. each year die of heart disease. In fact, more women die of heart disease each year than breast cancer.
The risk of heart attack and stroke increases with age. That’s especially true after menopause. But you should start protecting yourself from heart disease early. The buildup of plaque in your arteries (atherosclerosis) can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Atherosclerosis can start as early as your teens and 20s.
Talk with your healthcare provider about your cholesterol and blood pressure. Have both checked. The higher either of them is, the greater your risk for heart disease or heart attack. To check cholesterol, a blood test is done, usually after fasting. This test is done to measure the fats in your blood. It can tell you:
Your total cholesterol
LDL ("bad") cholesterol
HDL ("good") cholesterol
Triglycerides, another form of fat in the blood
But your cholesterol is only part of it. Your healthcare provider will look at your health history. They will also ask about your family history of heart disease. This information will help assess your personal risk for the disease. They may decide you need medicine to lower your cholesterol. Or your healthcare provider may want you to make lifestyle changes before prescribing medicine.
Things that put women at risk include:
Having had a hysterectomy
History of or currently using birth control pills (oral contraceptives)
Being pregnant and having high-risk complications. These include diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and eclampsia.
The following things put both women and men at risk for developing heart disease:
Personal history of coronary artery disease, ischemic stroke, or peripheral artery disease
Age over 55
Father or brother under age 55 with coronary heart disease
Mother or sister under age 65 with coronary heart disease
High blood pressure
High levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol or low levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol
Type 1 or type 2 diabetes
Chronic kidney disease
Past or current smoker
Getting little or no exercise
Heart disease is preventable for some women. The following lifestyle changes may help you lower your risk.
Being overweight can raise your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. It also puts you at risk for type 2 diabetes. This condition can also raise your risk for clogged arteries and heart attack.
By losing weight, you'll lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. You’ll also be less likely to develop diabetes. Even losing 5% to 10% of your body weight can make a difference. Talk with your healthcare provider about your weight.
Smokers have more than twice the risk for heart attack than do nonsmokers. The chemicals in cigarette smoke can shrink coronary arteries, making it tough for blood to circulate. Smoking can also cause the lining of blood vessels to become stickier. As a result, blood clots are more likely, which can cause stroke.
Strive for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity per week. This can be done in 30 to 40 minute chunks, 4 to 5 days a week. Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease. It can raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol.
Change the fats in your diet. Don't have butter or other saturated fats. Instead use liquid margarine, tub margarine, olive oil, and canola oil. But use them sparingly because all fats are high in calories. Each type of fat contains roughly 100 calories per tablespoon. Too much dietary fat of any kind can lead to weight gain.
Also limit the following:
Full-fat dairy products
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
Convenience or other prepared foods high in fat
Eat plenty of produce. A moderately active woman should eat at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily, depending on your calorie needs. Studies link diets high in fruits and vegetables with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for heart disease.
Soluble fiber helps reduce LDL cholesterol. Oatmeal, whole-grain bread, and other whole-grain foods are excellent sources of this nutrient. You should have 5 to 10 ounces of grains per day, depending on your caloried needs. Half of this amount should be whole grains.
Women should limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day. That’s equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits.