Women and heart disease: Learn what you can do about your risk factors.
Heart disease is something all women should be concerned about. After all, it’s the leading cause of death for women in the U.S. Fortunately, there’s much you can do to protect yourself—such as learning your risk factors and taking steps to control them.
Here’s a look at the risk factors for heart disease, along with information on what you can do about them.
Unhealthy levels of this fat-like substance can contribute to the buildup of plaque, which can clog arteries and keep oxygen-rich blood from getting to the heart—putting you at risk for both heart attack and stroke.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your LDL—or bad cholesterol—is too high, work with your doctor to make heart-healthy changes, such as starting an exercise program and cutting back on cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fat.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
High blood pressure makes your heart work harder than it should. It raises your risk for heart attack, heart failure and stroke.
As a woman, you have a heightened risk of high blood pressure if you’re 20 pounds or more over a healthy weight, have a family history of this condition, or have reached menopause.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Have your blood pressure checked regularly (high levels usually don’t cause symptoms). If it’s high, you may be able to lower it with lifestyle changes. For example, your doctor may recommend a special eating plan called DASH.
Smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers. And women who smoke are more likely to develop heart disease than men who smoke.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you are a smoker, stopping will cut your risk for heart disease in half in roughly a year. Your risk will continue to decline—as long as you don’t light up again—until it’s as low as a nonsmoker’s risk. Ask your doctor for help quitting and your friends and family for support.
Regular exposure to other people’s tobacco smoke also raises your risk for heart disease. So don’t be shy about asking others not to smoke in your home or presence.
LACK OF EXERCISE
Not moving much raises your risk for heart disease—even if you’re trim and have no other risk factors. It also makes you prone to other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Move more. Being active at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week will help protect your heart. Are you a couch potato? Start with 10 minutes of physical activity, and then work up to more.
Carrying too many pounds increases your risk for heart disease, especially if you’re apple-shaped and carry those excess pounds around your tummy. So take out a tape measure and measure your waist. If it’s more than 35 inches, you have an increased risk for heart problems as well as for high blood pressure, diabetes and other health conditions.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Work to shed extra weight. Losing only 5% to 10% of your body weight can help lower your heart disease risk. Start by making small changes. Watch serving sizes. Eat from plates, not packages. Don’t skip meals—you’ll just set yourself up for overeating later on.
People with diabetes are twice as likely to die from heart disease as those without diabetes. Women with diabetes are at especially high risk of developing heart disease.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: If you have diabetes, it’s essential to be physically active and to keep your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels. Your doctor can help you make a plan.
If you are over 45, overweight or obese, and/or have a family history of the disease, ask your doctor for a fasting blood sugar test or an A1C test.
FAMILY HISTORY AND RACE
If you have a family history of early heart disease, then you are more prone to heart disease yourself. Specifically, if your brother or father had a heart attack before age 55 or your sister or mother had one before age 65, then you may be at risk as well.
Race also affects your risk. African American women have higher rates of heart disease than any other ethnic group, partly because they have high rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: You can’t do anything about either of these factors. But if your race or family history puts you at increased risk, it’s important to pay special attention to the risk factors you can control.
As you age, your risk for heart disease grows. Women are considered to be at increased risk for heart disease starting at age 55. One reason women’s risk goes up with age is that after menopause their bodies start making less of the female hormone estrogen. In addition, middle age is also when women tend to develop other risk factors for heart disease.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: You can’t do anything about growing older. But you can start paying attention to risk factors for heart disease while you’re young. Artery-clogging plaque can start building up during childhood.
Stress can cause your arteries to narrow, which raises your blood pressure and your risk for a heart attack. Additionally, stress can indirectly make you vulnerable to heart disease if you react to pressure by overeating, lighting up a cigarette or engaging in other unhealthy habits.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Do your best to handle stress in a heart-friendly way—for example by unwinding with a brisk walk or other type of exercise.
BIRTH CONTROL PILLS
Women who take birth control pills and also smoke face a particularly high risk for heart disease, especially if they are older than 35.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of birth control pills and other birth control options. If you already have heart disease, ask your doctor what kinds of birth control are safe for you. Finally, don’t smoke—this advice is good for everyone, but it’s especially important for women who use birth control pills.
ALCOHOL AND ILLEGAL DRUGS
Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and may lead to heart failure and stroke. Alcohol also adds calories and can cause weight gain, which can in turn raise heart disease risk.
Intravenous drug use carries with it a high risk of endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s lining or valves. And cocaine use has been linked to heart attacks and strokes.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Avoiding these substances can help you keep your heart—and the rest of your body—healthy.
This serious disorder causes a person to briefly and repeatedly stop breathing during sleep. Anyone with untreated sleep apnea is more likely to develop high blood pressure or heart failure or to have a heart attack or stroke than someone without this health problem. Women’s risk of sleep apnea rises after menopause. Being overweight or smoking adds to that risk.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Alert your doctor if there’s any chance you might have sleep apnea. Red flags include heavy snoring and gasping for breath during sleep.
Learn more about women’s health at our Women’s Health topic center.LEARN MORE
Sources: American Cancer Society; American Heart Association; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Institutes of Health; National Sleep Foundation