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—called atherosclerosis—can lead to heart attacks and strokes. It can begin as early as your teens and 20s.
Check your risk
Talk with your health care 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. A blood test done after a 9- to 12-hour fast can 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 health care provider will look at your medical history. He or she will also ask about your family history of heart disease. This information will help assess your personal risk for the disease. He or she may decide you need medication to lower your cholesterol. Or your health care provider may want you to make lifestyle changes before prescribing medication.
For some women, heart disease is preventable. The following lifestyle changes can help women lower their risk for it.
Maintain a healthy weight
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 health care 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 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity 5 days a week. Exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease. It can raise your good cholesterol and lower your bad cholesterol.
Change your fats
Change the fats in your diet. Avoid butter and 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
- Fatty meats
- Palm oil
- Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
- Convenience or other prepared foods high in fat
Eat your fruits and veggies
Eat plenty of produce. A moderately active woman should eat at least 3 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily. 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. Adults should have 6 to 9 ounces of grains per day. Half of this amount should be whole grains.
Drink alcohol only in moderation
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 1-1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits.