How can women reduce their risk of heart disease?

Dr. Tamara B. Horwich, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

There are many lifestyle changes that women can undertake to reduce their risk of heart disease. For example:

  • Moderate aerobic activity, about 150 minutes per week, helps reduce women's risk of heart disease.
  • Healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet and the Dash diet, also lower risk of all types of cardiovascular disease including heart attack and stroke. Fresh vegetables, fruits, non-fat dairy, and healthy oils such as olive oil form the pyramid in these diets.
  • Using relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation as a way of coping with stressful situations also decreases cardiac risk. Meditation is now recommended by the American Heart Association as a method to reduce heart risk.

Obtaining and maintaining optimal goal values may lower your heart disease risk:

  • Total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol below 100 mg/dL
  • HDL (good) cholesterol above 50 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides below 150 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure of 120/80 mm Hg (optimal)
  • Fasting sugar (glucose) below 100 mg/dL 
  • Body mass index (BMI) below 25
  • Waist circumference below 35 inches (for women)
Dr. Michael W. Gen, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Quitting smoking is the easiest way to reduce the risk of heart disease. Reducing your cholesterol intake and exercising help. If your exercise pattern changes, it can be an alarming sign that there might be heart disease and may require evaluation. Exercise helps with cholesterol, heart function and among other things. When your weight increases, other risk factors go up, too. Losing weight, controlling and limiting diabetes with careful attention to diet and medication are other ways to reduce heart disease risk.

Dr. Rachel D. Keever, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

To reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), look for the symptoms and follow the heart-healthy guidelines listed below. If you feel you need to take action immediately call 9-1-1.

  • Lower your blood pressure.
  • Understand the dangers of smoking.
  • Eat for a healthy heart.
  • Get moving!
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Learn to manage stress.
  • Manage cholesterol.
  • Know the role of hormone replacement therapy.
  • Get regular checkups.

Women can reduce their risk of heart disease by:

  • Taking charge of their heart health and knowing that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.
  • Asking their primary care physicians for cholesterol and blood pressure screenings. Then, learning what the results mean and making the right lifestyle changes.
  • Knowing what symptoms to look for in case of an emergency.
  • If you develop any symptoms concerning for a heart event, approaching the doctor as soon as possible. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Women need to know that they are not immune to heart disease, even at a young age. It’s never too early or too late to begin living a healthy lifestyle. Eat a low-carb diet high in fruits and vegetables. Completely eliminate fried foods, stick to chicken or fish and consume low amounts of red meat. Perform 30 minutes of cardio daily.

Heart disease kills more women than any other medical condition. Women are often so focused on caring for others that they miss the warning signs. If they can make some changes now, even little changes, they can improve the quality of their life down the road and continue to play a big part in their family's lives for many years to come.

Your doctor can help you manage common risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, obesity or a family history of heart disease. Your doctor can also help by providing screening for cholesterol and blood pressure, advising on a healthy eating lifestyle, providing suggestions to improve your activity level and tips or workshop suggestions for quitting smoking.

Dr. Theodore D. Richards, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)
You can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing stress, avoiding smoking, and sticking to a healthy low-saturated fat diet that is high in fiber and low in fatty processed foods. Exercise several times a week with a program that is both challenging and motivating. Keep track of your cholesterol and talk to your doctor about having cardiovascular screening based on your family history of cardiovascular health and other risk factors.

Women can reduce their risk of heart disease by knowing the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease. I have heard countless stories of women presenting in the late stages of a heart attack having ignored their symptoms because they didn’t have time to slow down or get sick. It’s important to focus on our individual health and wellness, to learn, to be proactive about assessing our risk, and to take action in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle. 

Dr. Terry W. Smith, MD
Family Practitioner

Women have a lower risk for heart disease when in their 20s and 30s because estrogen helps keep the high-density lipoprotein (HDL, also known as the “good” cholesterol) level high. After a woman goes through menopause or has a complete hysterectomy, her estrogen protection is lost and the cholesterol's pattern changes to higher risk. That said, there are still important ways to reduce risk for heart disease: no smoking, keeping one’s weight down and monitoring blood pressure and blood sugar. Women should remember that their symptoms for angina or heart attack are different than men’s. They may, instead of having the typical anterior chest pain, experience simple lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fatigue or even back pain.

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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More than you might think.
  1. Get those 10,000 steps! No Excuses. Don’t like walking? Try Zumba, spinning, or swimming. The key is being as active as you were when you played on a sports team.
  2. Eat like a Med. That means, lean proteins (chicken, fish), heart-healthy fats (like DHA omega-3s), and tons of fruits and vegetables.
  3. Avoid the five food felons.
  4. Smash the ash. Quitting smoking not only will reduce your risk of heart disease, but it will improve your skin, your respiratory system, and reduce your risk of cancer.
  5. Drink in moderation. Ladies, that means one drink a night and you cannot save those drinks for the weekend and try to justify having five drinks in one sitting.
  6. Manage your stress. Easier said than done, but deep breathing, yoga, sleep, and exercise can all help.
  7. Talk to your doctor about aspirin and other vitamins and supplements that may help, like Dr. Mike’s Fab Five (calcium + magnesium, D3, DHA, multi, and probiotic).
These lifestyle choices will help keep your blood pressure in check, your lousy LDL low, your healthy HDL high, and your waistline slim enough to fit into your favorite pair of jeans.
Dr. Kelly A. Spratt, DO
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

If women know the risk factors of heart disease and can minimize or eliminate them, they can greatly improve their chances of preventing cardiovascular disease. When it comes to risk factors of heart disease for women, there are two categories: the usual suspects and the not-so-usual suspects.

The usual heart disease risk factors are the more commonly known ones: quit smoking; exercise; lose weight and maintain a healthy weight; eat a diet high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables while limiting fat, sugar, and alcohol intake; and control high blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar levels. While women certainly cannot control their gender, ethnicity, or family history, they can successfully control the “usual suspects” risk factors.

In addition, women should be sure to see their primary care physician regularly to help them monitor and control existing health conditions.

Women are their own best preventative measure in fighting heart disease. They can make vital changes that directly tackle their risk factors, and they don’t have to do it alone. They can team up with their physicians, family members, and good friends and gradually alter their diet, weight, and behavior—all for the better.

What women need to remember is to be aware. Aware of their bodies. Aware of their risk factors. Aware of symptoms that may signal trouble. Many women are often so busy taking care of others that they forget to take care of themselves. The steps they take today to improve their cardiovascular health could save their lives tomorrow.

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.

Take the RealAge Test!

Dr. Suzanne R. Steinbaum, DO
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)
Heart disease begins decades before symptoms develop, so prevention is the best way to reduce a woman's risk. Watch as I explain how diet, exercise, reducing stress and not smoking are imperative for a healthy heart.
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.

For women to reduce their risk of heart disease, diet and exercise are very important. But in terms of the classic risk factors, definitely quit smoking. Smoking is the most detrimental thing you can do to your health. So, quitting smoking is number one.

Then, it's a matter of managing what they call your "numbers." Know your blood pressure; make sure your have a healthy blood pressure. Know you blood sugar; make sure you're not in the diabetic or pre-diabetic range. Your weight or body mass index (BMI) is important. Make sure you maintain a healthy weight or BMI and that's mainly done through diet and exercise.

For women, the general recommendation is to maintain cardiovascular health and to maintain your current weight. If you're at a healthy weight, you should be doing about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most days of the week. That means doing brisk walking or light jogging or biking or swimming—something that gets the heart rate up—four to five days out of the week. If you're looking to lose weight, that time would increase to about 40 minutes to an hour most days of the week in order to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

We all know about eating a heart-healthy diet. What that means is plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Avoid high-fat, high-cholesterol meats like beef. Avoid processed carbohydrates and try to load your plate up with fruits and vegetables as the main portion on your plate.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

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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.