Women and heart disease: Reduce your risk

One out of every three women in the United States will die of heart disease.

Closeup of woman behind large salad

Making simple lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack— one of the most serious results of heart disease and the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

“The good news about heart disease is that it is often preventable if you reduce the risk factors,” says Dr. Jose Mejia, a cardiologist with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic.

Heart Healthy Choices

A woman should let her heart rule her head when making lifestyle choices. Quitting smoking (or never starting), eating healthy foods and exercising are more than remnants of last month’s New Year’s resolution. They are the key to a healthy heart.

Stop Smoking

“Quitting smoking is one of the most important steps you can take in preventing heart disease,” says Mejia. “The minute you reduce your tobacco intake, your risk of heart disease begins to drop. People who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day have more than twice the risk of heart attack than nonsmokers.”

Adopt a healthy lifestyle

Eating a healthy diet and exercising can help lower high cholesterol levels and reduce high blood pressure — major risk factors for heart disease in women. Too much fat in the diet can cause cholesterol to build up in the bloodstream, leading to blockages of coronary arteries that feed the heart. Too much salt can increase blood pressure, which forces the heart to work harder than it should.

But healthy eating alone is only a half-hearted attempt at reducing heart disease.

“Inactive women are almost twice as likely to have heart disease as women who exercise,” Mejia explains. “Make the time to exercise at least 30 minutes a day. It’s good for the heart, good for the soul and can help prevent a whole host of other diseases too.”

Sometimes good health habits aren’t enough to ensure that a woman’s cholesterol levels and blood pressure are in an acceptable range. Simple screening tests performed by a doctor can determine if medication may be needed.

There are also some heart disease risk factors that women simply can’t control such as age and family history.

“After age 50, a woman’s risk of heart disease and stroke begins to increase,” Mejia explains. “In addition, a woman whose mother or sister had a heart attack before age 65 or whose father or brother had one before age 55 is more likely to develop heart disease. Keeping the heart as healthy as possible can minimize a woman’s risk.”

Warning Signs

Sometimes a woman will get heart disease despite her best efforts to stay healthy. But learning the warning signs for heart attack and stroke can help prevent unnecessary heart damage — or death. Women are more likely to die from hearts attacks than men because they often don’t recognize the warning signs.

“Women can have very different heart attack warning signs than men,” says Mejia. “While chest pain is common to both men and women, many women experience symptoms that may seem harmless. Any woman who suddenly experiences or has prolonged pain or discomfort in the upper body, including the shoulders, arms, back, neck or jaw; shortness of breath; dizziness; extreme fatigue; nausea; indigestion; or anxiety, should see their doctor immediately.”

“Every woman is at risk for heart disease, but it’s not inevitable” says Mejia. “If you’re over the age of 20, you should have yearly conversations with your doctor to discuss your heart health. It’s never too early – or too late – to take care of your heart.”

ADC will Go Red Friday, Febrary 4.  For information on how you or your workplace can participate visit www.goredforwomen.org.