Heart and Vascular Disease in Women

February is American Heart Month so now is a good time to discuss some important facts about heart and vascular disease in women. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease and stroke are women's number 1 and number 3 killers. Heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases will kill more women than the next four leading causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. Therefore, it is important to know what puts you at risk for developing heart and vascular disease.

High blood pressure makes our hearts work harder than normal which can damage the heart and arteries over time, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Women are at risk of developing high blood pressure if they: are 20 or more pounds over a healthy weight for their height and build; have a family history of high blood pressure; take certain types of oral contraceptives; are pregnant or are age 55 or older. For adults age 18 and over a systolic pressure less than 120 and a diastolic pressure less than 80 are normal.

Cholesterol is a wax-like substance that is found in your body. However, too much cholesterol in your body can create plaque buildup on the walls of your blood vessels which can restrict blood flow to the heart and brain and increase your risk of clots, heart attack and stroke. A fasting lipid profile is a blood test that will give you information about total cholesterol; LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides. A total cholesterol level less than 200 mg/dl is desirable. An optimal LDL level is less than 100 mg/dl. However, you should talk to your health care provider about what your LDL should be as this depends on how many risk factors you have for heart disease. An HDL level greater than 60 mg/dl and a triglyceride level less than 150 mg/dl lowers your risk for heart disease. 

Lack of exercise and being overweight increases one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Being more active is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health and quality of life. Exercise helps you to reach and stay at a healthy weight. It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and prevents or controls diabetes; which in turn reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease. Furthermore, exercising regularly is also good for your bones. It reduces stress and depression, and keeps your mind sharp as you get older. Talk to your healthcare provider about what exercises are safe for you and how much exercise you should get.

A healthy heart also needs a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables; aim for five servings per day. Avoid foods high in cholesterol and saturated and trans-fats which can increase cholesterol levels. Eat more whole grains which are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber helps to lower cholesterol which in turn reduces your risk of heart disease. Protein is needed to keep our bodies healthy. Choose lean sources of protein such as fish, lean cuts of beef, skinless chicken and fat-free or low fat dairy products. Finally, don't eat too much sugar. Sweets are high in calories and have very little nutritional value.

Smoking is the top preventable cause of premature death. Women who smoke increase their chances of developing heart disease, heart attack, stroke and peripheral artery disease. Other major health problems caused by smoking include lung, mouth and throat cancers, and lung disease. If you quit, your risk of heart disease and stroke starts to drop until it is as low as a nonsmoker's risk.

Diabetes can increase your risk of developing heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Therefore, if you have diabetes, it is important to have regular checkups with your care provider. Diabetes can be controlled by eating a healthy diet, managing your weight, getting enough exercise and taking medication as prescribed.

February 7 is National Wear Red Day a campaign to increase awareness about women and heart disease. Get screened and see if you are at risk.

For more information on heart disease or to make an appointment with a heart specialist contact the Heart & Lung Clinic.