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Leading a Heart Healthy Lifestyle is Important For Women of Every Age

Aug 29, 2008
Long considered a man's problem, heart disease now affects more females than males. Heart disease is responsible for 52 percent of all deaths in American women, claiming 250,000 female lives every year - more than all forms of cancer.

Fortunately, much is known today about preventing and monitoring heart disease through lifestyle changes, which makes it possible to control many of your risk factors. To begin leading a heart healthier lifestyle, you first need to better understand heart disease.

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is the term used to describe a number of ailments affecting the heart, blood vessels and arteries.

These conditions include:

Coronary Artery Disease - also referred to as coronary heart disease, this is a disease caused by fat, cholesterol and plaque build-up inside the artery walls, making them narrow. Coronary artery disease occurs when the heart does not get the oxygen and nutrients that it needs to function properly because of decreased blood flow.

Valvular Heart Disease - a disease that occurs when any of the four heart valves is damaged and becomes leaky (incompetent), causing backflow of blood when the valve should be closed, or narrowed (stenosis), which makes it difficult for blood to flow forward.

Congestive Heart Failure - a condition caused by a variety of other conditions - including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and valvular heart disease - that develops when the heart cannot adequately pump blood through the body.

What is your risk for heart disease?

It is important to understand the risk factors that impact your likelihood of developing heart disease. Luckily, many of these factors are within your control. Answering the following questions and assessing your own risk for heart disease is the first step toward a heart healthy lifestyle.

Do you have a family history of early heart disease?

The tendency toward certain heart disease risk factors may be inherited. The presence of an immediate female family member (mother or sister) with coronary heart disease before age 65, or male relative (father or brother) diagnosed before age 55, will significantly increase your risk of heart disease.

Do you have high blood pressure?

High blood pressure makes the heart work harder, contributes to hardening of the arteries, and increases the frequency of angina (chest pain that is the heart's response to a lack of oxygen), as well as the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Do you have high cholesterol?

High levels of cholesterol in the blood lead to increases in the amount of plaque in the arteries and coronary artery disease. All adults should have a lipid profile performed including a total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels. This is done after fasting for eight hours in order to get the most accurate results. The newest guidelines provide targets for your lipids according to your risk factor profile.

Do you have diabetes?

Diabetes, especially uncontrolled or untreated - can significantly increase your risk of heart disease. A simple blood test can determine how much glucose (sugar) is in your blood. The normal, non-diabetic range for fasting blood glucose is from 70 to 100 mg/dL. If the level is over 126mg/dL, it usually means you have diabetes. If you have diabetes, treating other risk factors for cardiovascular disease - such as hypertension and abnormal cholesterol levels - is particularly important.

Have your menstrual periods stopped?

As women reach menopause, the risks increase with one in 10 women between the ages of 45 and 64 experiencing some form of heart disease. After age 65, that statistic jumps to one in four. Around menopause, estrogen levels start to drop, and heart disease risk starts to rise.

Do you smoke?

If you smoke, kick the habit! Smoking increases your risk for a heart attack by almost five times that of a non-smoker. In addition, it has been found that low-tar cigarettes are not effective in reducing the risk of heart disease in those people who use tobacco.

Are you more than 20 pounds overweight?

Being overweight can more than double your risk of heart disease. Obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and abnormal cholesterol levels.

Do you get little or no regular exercise?

Studies suggest regular exercise can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. Physical activity lowers your blood pressure, increases the amount of "good" cholesterol in your blood and reduces the tendency of blood to clot. Aerobic exercise - any exercise that makes the heart and lungs work harder to supply the muscles with oxygen - is a great way to strengthen your heart.

What is your body shape?

Depending on your body type, whether you are apple- or pearshaped, you may be more likely to develop heart disease. The Nurses' Health Study at Brigham and Women's Hospital found that middle-aged and older women who are apple-shaped are at greater risk for heart disease. According to the study, women with a 38-inch waist or greater are three times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than women with waistlines of 28 inches or less.

Make a healthy change

As a woman, it is important for you to understand heart health. Current research studies, such as the Nurses' Health Study at Brigham and Women's Hospital (http://www.brighamandwomens.org/excellence/cardiovascular.aspx), are finding significant differences between men and women that extend to the symptoms, prevention and treatment of heart disease. Be heart smart for your good health!
About the Author
As a woman, it is important for you to understand heart health. Current research studies, such as the Nurses' Health Study at Brigham and Women's Hospital, are finding significant differences between men and women that extend to the symptoms, prevention and treatment of heart disease. Be heart smart for your good health!
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