How can women reduce their risk of heart disease?

Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgeon

The American Heart Association recently published its recommendations for preventing heart disease in women in the journal Circulation. The following seven recommendations are true lifesavers:

  • Avoid smoking: Firsthand, secondhand—all of it. Your heart and lungs are not the toxic waste dump for the tobacco industry.
  • Exercise regularly: Thirty to 60 minutes of intense, heart-rate-raising, total body exercise. You strengthen your heart and, as a bonus, you strengthen your mind.
  • What you eat matters: You have a waistline, not a wasteline. Eat a diet high in fruits, veggies and whole grains. Eat fish twice a week. Limit saturated fats (that's right: no fried foods), excess alcohol and excess sugar.
  • Manage your body composition and your weight: How much fat you have hanging around your body matters, as fat is a toxic metabolic organ that produces chemicals and hormones that, in excess, damage your body.
  • Lower your blood pressure: Your heart is a muscle. The harder it has to work to push blood through your vessels, the worse it is for its longevity. Decrease the work your heart must do by lowering the blood pressure it has to pump against. Exercise or medical treatment does the trick.
  • Keep your cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in check: High cholesterol not only gums up the vessels your heart must push blood through (like a clogged drain), but cholesterol actually infiltrates your vessel walls, causing damage and increasing the risk of heart attack. Exercise or medical treatment can help fix this.
  • Be sweet on the outside, not the inside: High blood sugar also damages your blood vessels and soft tissues while complicating diabetes. Keep your blood sugar in check with exercise or medical treatment.

Remember: The first step toward prevention is knowing yourself. Get to the doctor and find out your weight and blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

To reduce the risk of heart disease, start paying attention to things like cholesterol levels, weight, physical activity and diet. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over 45. Unfortunately, not enough women realize this.

Eat a heart-healthy diet composed of healthy fats, lots of fruits, vegetables and fiber, and low-fat protein like fish and soy, accompanied by at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. This is what the body needs to replace the previous protection of estrogen.

Stop smoking. Women who smoke are two to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmoking women, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked each day. Smokers also have a significantly higher risk of heart disease if they have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol or if they are obese and/or have low levels of physical activity.

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Marianne J. Legato, MD, FACP, the founder and director of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University, says the number one thing women can do to prevent heart disease is reduce stress in their lives. "Try to be less stressed," she advises women. "Deal with your life head-on. If you have a nagging problem you can't solve, it's very important to talk to somebody. Not everything needs a shrink. Talking to a true friend may be the best therapy there is."

Other lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease include not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a heart-healthy diet.

"Keep a detailed food diary for two weeks," Dr. Legato recommends. Write down everything you eat, and then see a skilled nutritionist who can help you include more of the following:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • 100% whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
  • Lean protein, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
  • Foods that are low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, sodium, and added sugars

If you have a medical condition that is a contributing factor for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, make sure to follow your doctor's advice, take your prescription medicines appropriately, and keep your blood pressure and blood sugar under control. Some women at high risk of heart disease may also benefit from the use of supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.