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Heart disease is an important health issue for women of every age. The disease is the number one killer of American women. It includes several types of heart conditions, with coronary artery disease being the most common. Despite an increase in awareness over the past decades, only about half women recognize that coronary heart disease is their number one killer and what they can do to lower their risk.
While heart disease is most common in older women, the factors that can lead to heart disease begin decades earlier. Establishing heart healthy habits early in life reduces the risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease later in life. The same regimen applies to older women who can take steps at any age to lower their risks for heart disease and stroke.
The greatest risks for developing heart disease and stroke are smoking, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, family history (genetics) and abnormal cholesterol, says Lynn Swisher, MD, a cardiologist with the Cayuga Heart and Vascular Center at Cayuga Medical Center. Sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet, sleep apnea contribute other risks. The more risk factors you have for heart disease, the higher your risk. Top risks include:
Smoking. Smokers are up to four times more likely to have heart disease than nonsmokers. Even smoking in your 20s speeds up developing heart disease. The longer you smoke, the greater your risk of developing cardiac heart disease, Dr. Swisher notes.
Even smoking one cigarette a day raises the risk of heart disease by about 50 percent and increases the risk of stroke by about 25 percent. If you quit now, within a year you’ll reduce your risk of heart disease by half of what it was while you smoked. Within 10-15 years, your heart disease risk is the same as a woman who never smoked, Dr. Swisher says.
Diet. Healthy eating plays a big part of preventing heart disease and type 2 diabetes that increases the risks for heart attack and stroke. No matter your age, opt for a healthy, well-balanced diet each day. Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat and sodium and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish. If you eat meat, select the leanest cuts available to you, says Donna Sandidge, MD, the medical director of the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living.
Among her recommendations: Avoid bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats. Choose healthy proteins such as fish, poultry, beans, soy and nuts. Use healthy oils such as olive and canola oil for cooking, on salads and at the table, she says. Drink water, tea or coffee. Go easy on juice. Avoid sugary drinks. Make fresh fruit your regular dessert.
Exercise. Few women get enough physical activity to help prevent heart disease. At least 30 minutes of physical activity, five times a week, is needed to stay healthy. That’s a high reach for women juggling jobs, families and homes. Dr. Sandidge recommends starting out with a daily 10-minute walk and slowly working up to 150 minutes of exercise each week by incorporating more walking, stairs and muscle-strengthening activities.
Cholesterol. Genetics significantly influence cholesterol levels in your blood, but diet also plays a role. If cholesterol levels are high even with a heart-healthy diet, you have coronary/vascular disease or are in a high-risk group for developing disease, medication may be of benefit through your doctor.
Aging. Heart disease risks increase as we age. Before menopause, a woman's estrogen helps protect her from heart disease by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol. After menopause, total cholesterol rises and is one factor that increases the risks that can lead to a heart attack. If you’ve followed a healthy lifestyle and continue doing so after menopause, your risk of developing heart disease and stroke is lower. That regimen, and working with your physician before and after menopause, helps women maintain a heart healthy life.
High blood pressure. Hypertension has a genetic predisposition. Exercise, good sleep patterns, avoidance of excessive salt and following a heart-healthy diet can help lower blood pressure. Many people will need medication to keep their blood pressure at goal, however. Targets: Systolic (upper number) <140, diastolic (lower number) <90.
Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is a major factor in coronary artery and vascular disease. Being overweight raises your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Healthy diet, weight, exercise can prevent diabetes and control it if you have the disease. There are new medications that can help with control as well.
For more information on heart disease and prevention, call the Cayuga Heart and Vascular Center at (607) 272-0460 or the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living at (607) 252-3590.