1. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women
But only 20 percent of American women believe that heart disease is their greatest health threat, according to the American Heart Association. “The risk factors for women and men are [similar],” explains Beth Abramson, MD, a cardiologist at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. “They include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and family history of heart disease.” However, women have some unique risks, including pregnancy and menopause. Nine in 10 women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.
2. Up to 80 percent of heart disease is preventable
“It’s never too late, or too early, to make a lifestyle change,” says Dr. Abramson. “Much of heart disease can be avoided by controlling risk factors.” This includes having your blood pressure checkef by a medical professional. “People think they can feel their own blood pressure, but this isn’t the case,” says Dr. Abramson. Speak to your doctor if you have any blood-pressure concerns. Even if you don’t have any apparent risk factors, it’s important to know the warning signs of heart attacks and stroke.
You can also make lifestyle changes to lower your risk. Eat a healthy diet, limit alcohol consumption, don’t smoke, take steps to lower your cholesterol and manage your weight, especially if you carry extra pounds around your belly, which can put you at an even higher risk for heart disease. Aim to exercise at least three times a week, Dr. Abramson recommends, and try to reduce your stress levels.
3. Pregnancy and childbirth can increase stroke risk
Most pregnant women in America are closely monitored for blood pressure changes and other pregnancy- related health risks. Strokes associated with pregnancy and childbirth are usually the result of an underlying problem, like a pre-existing blood vessel malformation or eclampsia. If you have or suspect you have either of these conditions, speak to your doctor about it before you conceive or immediately after finding out you’re pregnant. The risk of a pregnancy-related stroke is greatest in the six weeks following childbirth, so don’t skip postpartum appointments. Gestational diabetes can also contribute to heart-health issues during pregnancy.
4. Hormonal birth control can increase some women’s risk for heart disease
Hormone-containing contraceptives like the Pill, the patch, and the NuvaRing are generally safe for most women. But those who smoke while using hormonal contraceptives put themselves at high risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and blood clots. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about safest form of birth control. And get help to kick that habit.
5. Heart disease risk rises after menopause
During the transition to menopause, the ovaries stop the producing the heart-protecting hormone estrogen. Menopausal women may experience an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglyceride levels, and a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol). Reduced estrogen levels can also increase body fat around the waist. “It’s the way the body handles fat across the belly that’s the problem,” says Dr. Abramson. “Belly fat is associated with more inflammation and higher cholesterol.”
Hormone changes can also have harmful effects on the way blood clots and affect the way the body handles sugar, which can lead to diabetes. Post-menopausal women also need to manage lifestyle risk factors. “As always, it’s important to get into the right habits,” says Dr. Abramson. “Exercise, eat a heart-healthy diet, and limit alcohol consumption.” Hormone therapy is a potential solution for some women, but speak to your doctor and weigh the risks and benefits.
6. Excessive alcohol consumption can affect your chances of getting heart disease
Drinking too much of any kind of alcohol raises blood pressure and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. What qualifies as excessive alcohol consumption? Anything more than two drinks a day or more than nine drinks per week. “There have been studies that show that moderate alcohol consumption can have a slight protective effect against heart disease,” says Dr. Abramson. “But most of those studies have been done on people who are already fit, and we don’t recommend starting to drink if you don’t already.” It’s best to drink in moderation, or not at all. There are other ways to get the antioxidant benefits certain types of alcohol may provide.
Web exclusive, February 2010