During the month of February, you’ll see oodles of colorful hearts displayed on Valentine’s cards, all symbolizing love, but don’t forget there’s a real heart beating inside of you and it needs to stay healthy. Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, and, contrary to popular belief, heart attacks do happen to women and the risk goes up after menopause. Why the higher risk after menopause? Estrogen helps keep the inner walls of blood vessels flexible. Once you’re post-menopausal, estrogen levels drop.
We hear about the importance of lifestyle, but how much can you really do to prevent heart disease? More than you might think. Researchers at the University of Indiana in Bloomington followed almost 90,000 young and middle-aged female nurses for 20 years, carefully looking at their lifestyle habits. Over the course of the study, they found lifestyle factors reduced the odds of developing heart disease or a heart attack by a whopping 90%. They identified six health and lifestyle habits that lower a woman’s risk of heart disease:
Exercising 2.5 or more hours per week
Maintaining a normal body weight
Eating a healthy diet
Drinking no more than one drink daily
Watching 7 or fewer hours of television weekly
It’s not surprising that lifestyle reduces your risk for a heart attack when you’re healthy, but what if you already have a risk factor for heart disease like hypertension, elevated cholesterol level or diabetes? Lifestyle can help here too. Over the course of the study, almost half of the women developed a risk factor for heart disease. Women who developed one of these risk factors during the study and practiced the six lifestyle habits lowered their risk for heart disease and heart attack significantly. Lifestyle matters when it comes to the health of your heart.
What is a Heart-Healthy Diet?
Diet is an obvious way to lower your risk for heart disease – but what is a heart-healthy diet? The “old school” idea that a low-fat diet is better for your heart is changing. These days, there’s an emphasis on eating healthy fats like monounsaturated fats from sources like olive oil, nuts and avocados and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids like those in fatty fish. One type of fat that still carries the distinction of being bad for your heart is trans-fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oil. Trans-fat still lurks in some processed foods and foods served in restaurants. Avoid it as much as possible.
A number of studies show the Mediterranean Diet, an eating plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and seafood and de-emphasizes red meat lowers heart disease risk, slows aging and prolongs life. Despite the controversy about whole grains, especially ones that contain gluten, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the risk of premature mortality decreases with every serving an individual eats each day. One thing is clear – whole grains are a better choice than refined grains that have had their vitamins, minerals, and fiber stripped away. Whole grains have the advantage of slowing digestion, thereby reducing blood sugar spikes and increasing satiety too.
What Type of Exercise is Best for Reducing the Risk of Heart Disease?
This study only looked at physical activity in general – it didn’t distinguish between slow, moderate or vigorous intensity exercise. However, when you look at other research, most studies show vigorous exercise is most protective, although any type of exercise is better than none. High-intensity exercise is better for increasing aerobic capacity (V02 max), while both moderate and high-intensity exercise improves blood lipids, lowers blood pressure and insulin sensitivity – all good things when it comes to the health of your heart.
Exercise lowers your risk for other risk factors for heart disease, including hypertension and type 2 diabetes, two major risk factors for heart disease. Plus, exercise, especially vigorous exercise, improves the way blood vessels function by helping them dilate more effortlessly and deliver oxygen to tissues. Finally, exercise reduces stress and helps with weight control, both of which are positives for heart health.
Heart Disease in Women
The characteristic signs and symptoms of a heart attack – severe chest pain that radiates to the left arm or jaw, sweating and shortness of breath are less common in women than men. Instead, some women experience vague symptoms such as feeling tired, lightheaded or dizzy, shortness of breath, nausea or upper back or tummy discomfort when they’re not getting enough blood flow to their heart. Take these symptoms seriously. Women have a higher risk for mortality when they have a heart attack, partially because the diagnosis is more likely to be delayed. If you have a risk factor for heart disease like family history, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking history, elevated cholesterol, or are past the age of menopause, see your doctor regularly and follow the six lifestyle habits to keep your heart healthy.
The Bottom Line?
Heart disease isn’t a man’s disease and it can occur at any age, even before menopause. The good news? It’s never too late to learn more about your family history, find out if you have a risk factor like elevated cholesterol and take steps to reduce your risk. During the month of February, think about heart health and what you can do to keep yours healthy.
Medline Plus. “More Evidence That Healthy Living Works Wonders for Women’s Hearts” January 5, 2015.
Medline Plus. “Could a ‘Mediterranean’ Diet Extend Your Life? December 3, 2014.
Medline Plus. “Diet Rich in Whole Grains Might Extend Your Life, Study Says”
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Oct;42(10):1951-8. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181d99203.
Am J Cardiovasc Dis. 2012: 2(2): 102-110.
J Hypertens. 2005 Feb;23(2):293-9.
Mayo Clinic. “Heart Disease in Women”
ReachMD. “Are Women Losing Ground to Heart Disease?”
American Heart Association. “Heart Attack Symptoms in Women”
American Heart Association. “Menopause and Heart Disease”
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